Christian refugees looking hard for joy
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.”