Christian refugees looking hard for joy

Friday 18/12/2015
Syrian refugee girls hold Christmas gifts in Bar-Elias in the Bekaa valley, on December 24, 2014.

Beirut - Azraa’ Aziz is hoping that someone would lend her an old artificial tree that she could decorate for Christmas to bring about a semblance of festivities to her tiny one-room dwelling, which she shares with her husband and three young children. Marie Antoun im­provises a nativity scene represent­ing Jesus’s birthplace by wrapping old newspapers around a cardboard box.
Christmas decorating for Chris­tian refugees from Iraq and Syria has become a luxury that most can­not afford when basic needs such as shelter, food, health care and edu­cation are hardly secured.
Tens of thousands of Christian families with children have escaped attacks by radical Islamic groups in Iraq and Syria. The mostly well-educated and middle-class Chris­tian families, who sought refuge in Lebanon, live in urban centres with one room for an entire family.
“The children ask for the things they see like glittering decorations and the many toys displayed in the shops but we have no money to buy them,” said Aziz, an Iraqi refugee from Mosul. “Whatever money we brought with us is about to finish and my husband can hardly find casual work every now and then.”
It will be the second Christmas away from “home”, which Aziz and her family fled when the Islamic State (ISIS) seized the northern Iraqi city more than a year ago and con­fiscated the property of Christians, who were given the choice to con­vert to Islam or face death.
Aziz planned to take her children to a Christmas party organised by the Chaldean Church for about 1,000 refugee children. “Hopefully they will get a feel of the feast and have some joyful time amid all this gloom,” she said as she queued at the Chaldean Social Welfare Centre to receive food distributed by the church.
The centre, which was set up six months ago in the low-income Bei­rut neighbourhood of Bauchrieh where most Christian refugees from Iraq settled, caters to about 35,000 registered refugees in addition to 10,000 non-Chaldean Christians from Iraq and Syria.
“The church had no choice but to open its doors to the refugees,” cen­tre director Georges Khoury said. “They arrived here with no money, no relations and no links whatso­ever… We had to provide them with social services, health assistance and food, in addition to helping them with rents, although the Chal­dean Church’s means are very mod­est.”
About 90% of Christian Iraqis are Chaldeans and turn to the church for assistance.
“The problem of refugees does not date back to a couple of years but has been ongoing for a long time. Christians have been flee­ing Iraq since the (1990) war in Ku­wait… It has been nothing but suf­fering and suffering and suffering,” said Chaldean Archbishop in Leba­non Michel Kassarji.
“The church has no income from endowments. We have been mainly helped by the civil society in Leba­non, both Christians and Muslims, mostly in kind, which we distribute to refugees, including Muslims.”
Antoun, a Syrian Christian refu­gee, fled her native Aleppo with her parents two and a half years ago. Her father, Youssef, was a well-off entrepreneur whose business was totally lost in the raging war. For him Christmas is “just another day”.
“How could there be any Christ­mas joy when we are hardly sur­viving and all my children are scat­tered — one in Aleppo, another in Homs, another in Damascus and one daughter with her husband and children in Belgium,” he said.
For compatriot and co-religionist Mariette Shakar, 2015 marks the fourth Christmas she and her handi­capped sister have been refugees in Lebanon. “Christmas returns every year with more tears and pain. It is a season that will pass without any expectations. We had hoped to see an improvement in our condi­tions but alas from bad to worse,” she said. With one brother killed by shellfire and another stuck in Aleppo, she says, “There will be no Christmas for us.
“I believe there is a systematic at­tempt to exterminate all Christians in Syria and the Arab world.”
Josephine Sioufi and her family of eight were among the few Chris­tians who remained in Aleppo until earlier in 2015. “A whole building next to our house collapsed on its inhabitants while they were sleep­ing, killing them all. My son was kidnapped by [al-Qaeda-affiliated] Jabhat al-Nusra and my son-in-law was injured by sniper fire, so we de­cided to leave,” Sioufi said.
She said Christmas celebrations are distant memories after so many years of war. “We used to deco­rate the house, buy new clothes, exchange gifts and get together around special meals but we haven’t celebrated Christmas for several years now,” she said. “We have been in mourning after my brother was killed and my mother succumbed to her grief.”
Sioufi, like many refugees, is waiting to be reunited with relatives who made it to Germany among hundreds of thousands of war-weary migrants flocking to Europe. Others have applied for a resettle­ment in a third country through UN agencies.
“We would be grateful for any country that is safe and stable and willing to take us in. Any place where our children can have a fu­ture,” said Aziz who has been wait­ing for more than a year to be reset­tled with her family.
“It is a sad fact for the church to witness the mass migration of Christians,” said Kassarji. “But logi­cally, they have no other choice but to immigrate. They feel threatened every day. They don’t know what the future is like. There were more than 1 million Christians in Iraq. To­day there are hardly 300,000.”