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)