Volunteer Organisation Throws Christmas Ball for Ukrainian Children

Ukrainian families living in Iceland were treated to a Christmas Ball on Saturday. The party was the culmination of a year of events and relief efforts led by the volunteer-run organization Flottafólk and included a banquet and a visit from Iceland’s Yule Lads. Iceland Review spoke to one of the event organisers, Markús Már Efraim, about the festive event.

Also known as the Ukrainian Refugee Center in Iceland, Flottafólk (whose name in Icelandic, Great People, is a pun on the word flóttafólk, which means refugee), “was founded by likeminded volunteers at the start of the war to provide relief for the Ukrainian refugees coming to Iceland,” says Markús. Saturday’s Christmas Ball was the organization’s biggest event of the year and was made possible thanks to volunteers, “both local and Ukrainian, and the goodwill of the local community,” individuals and businesses alike, who donated gifts for the children.

The ball treated 400 guests—mostly Ukrainian children and their families—to a delicious holiday banquet including everything from traditional Icelandic Christmas fare such as hangikjöt to pizza, laughs Markús, “for those whose tastebuds are not made for smoked lamb.”

After eating their fill, the children got to dance around a giant Christmas tree with some visiting Yule Lads, who then handed out gifts. Members of the Ukrainian community also staged a dance performance.

A home away from home

“Our hearts are full of pure gratitude to those who have been taking care of us for many months already!” wrote attendee and teacher Tanya Korolenko in the Facebook group “Ísland fyrir Úkraínu” (‘Iceland for Ukraine’). “The spirit of Christmas is everywhere now. It’s beautiful…And all Ukrainians here, in Reykjavik, are thanking you heartily for allowing us to feel it, to enjoy it ourselves! It means a lot!”

“Thanks to Flottafolk and its keen volunteers Ukrainians get a HOME to meet every Tuesday, they have plenty of help with practical issues like clothes and hygiene,” continued Tanya. “But what touches me the most is when people take care of other people’s feelings. Like you did today.”

Indeed, Flottafólk has been providing relief to the Ukrainian refugee community in Iceland since the beginning of the war, Markús explains. “Relief has been in the form of food, clothing, jobs, events and field trips for kids, educational programs, psychological support, childcare and basically everything necessary. This winter our biggest focus has been on the distribution of clothes and necessities,” he continues, noting that these distributions take place twice a week at Neskirkja and the community centre in the Grandi neighbourhood on the west side of Reykjavík.

“During the open houses we often get visits from local educators and speakers or do something special like concerts, and traditional gingerbread-making and decoration.”

Plans to expand in the New Year

Invigorated as the volunteers are by their joyful celebration on Saturday, Flottafólk has even bigger plans for the new year, says Markús. “We would like to expand the educational programs, including various art workshops, but need more space as the community centre we have access to has its own extensive programming.”

“One of the things we have planned for the new year is a writing workshop for kids,” says Markús, which would be co-taught by himself and Tanya Korolenko. “This would hopefully culminate in a bilingual book with the children’s writing and illustrated by Ukrainian artists.”

It seems clear that Flottafólk and its ongoing, collaborative efforts have helped to create a strong sense of kinship between local volunteers and members of the newly arrived Ukrainian community, something that Markús Már is quick to affirm. “I had no connections to Ukraine before the war, but as a volunteer and now, project manager for the community centre and educational programs, I feel strong kinship with the Ukrainian people. The refugee community has shown great gratitude to all of us volunteers and given back in so many ways.”

Photos by Alesia Kovalova (Алеся Ковальова)

Incident Involving Refugee and Son Ejected from Bus Sparks Outrage

public bus Reykjavík

An account of a refugee and his son being prevented from boarding a Strætó bus from Reykjavík to Keflavík on Friday evening has invoked a public outcry and garnered a great deal of attention, both on social media and from community leaders, Vísir reports. Nichole Leigh Mosty, director of the Multicultural Information Centre, says the story isn’t surprising, and that cultural sensitivity training is important for people in service jobs who deal with diverse populations.

Refused to let another passenger pay fare

According to a public Facebook post published by Joana Diminiczak, a man and his young son boarded a Strætó 55 bus at the University of Iceland stop at 6:31 PM on Friday. The man attempted to use the payment card provided for him by the municipality of Reykjanesbær, but the card didn’t work. The driver told him he had to pay his fare out of pocket and began to berate him in front of the other passengers. The man called someone and handed the phone to the driver, who said that “‘these refugees’ never want to pay,” wrote Joana in her post, “they bring useless cards and he’s not a charity, he does his job, and wants to finally go home and have his dinner.” Joana continued, saying that the driver then turned to the man and said in English, “I live in Njarðvík [one of the towns that comprises Reykjanesbær]. I’ll find you.”

At this point, Joana said she attempted to intercede and pay the fare for the man and child, but the bus driver refused, saying he had called the police. “I ask him to call the police [back] and say the matter is resolved because I will pay for them, but he didn’t want to do it. When I say that I can call so he doesn’t have to, he still doesn’t want to let me pay!!! The man gives up, takes his son, and they get out. He looks up at the sky, near tears, but still with hope in his eyes of sparing the boy the humiliation, and says, ‘He watches us.’ We pull out and the bus driver proudly calls the police and says that he is no longer in need of assistance.”

Joana then concluded her post, writing, “Such drivers shouldn’t be driving buses. I hope that Strætó takes this matter seriously.” At time of writing, the post had received 202 largely sympathetic and outraged comments, many of which called on Strætó to address the situation. It had been also been shared around 1,400 times.

‘They need training in how to deal with this diverse group of customers’

When contacted for comment, Nichole Leigh Mosty, director of the Multicultural Information Centre, said the story did not surprise her. “I wasn’t surprised, because I know there have been difficulties implementing the Klappið app [Strætó’s payment app]. It isn’t designed for diverse members of society, for foreigners or senior citizens. And we’ve seen this behaviour from employees over and over. It’s a stressful job, but the fact that they are serving a diverse community means that they need training in how to deal with this diverse group of customers. But don’t make such prejudicial statements and [provide] poor service.”

Nichole says that cultural sensitivity training is vital. “Whenever we have people in a service position, cultural sensitivity is needed considering that there are all sorts of people who use public transportation. And those who are serving them need to be able to treat everyone who uses that service with respect.”

‘It’s very clear that we’ll be looking into what went on there’

Strætó’s director Jóhannes Svavar Rúnarsson told reporters that he wasn’t familiar with the situation himself, but that the case has been referred to the Icelandic Road Administration, which services bus lines that run outside of the capital area. However, at time of writing, Bergþóra Kristinsdóttir, manager of the Road Administration’s service department, said that she was not familiar with the situation either.

“It’s not a nice story. It’s not come across our desk, I’ve not received any other information about this incident. But it’s very clear that we’ll be looking into what went on there,” said Bergþóra.