It was right around this time last year that the world’s eyes were all fixed on a city just a few miles south of where I live. After a four year stalemate that climaxed in a five-month siege, the city of Aleppo finally fell. Or it was finally liberated. It all depends on perspective. No matter how you look at it, this proud, ancient city had become a wasteland of a war zone and atrocities were committed on all sides. For many the Christmas season of 2016 will be remembered as the year they were forced to flee their homes and cross borders into a strange land with nothing but their shirts on their backs. Fifty thousand refugees fled the city upon its imminent fall on December 15 and a good number of them ended up in my backyard. I live in a city of two million where about one-fourth of that population are refugees from Syria. That is only a drop in the bucket when considering that of the 22 million Syrians in that nation before the war, more than 13.5 million of them have either fled the country, become internally displaced, or the conditions where they have remained are so bad they cannot survive without humanitarian relief. As bad as that it, Syrians account for just under a third of the total number of refugees worldwide.
What will your Christmas look like? That question sounds so jarring and manipulative when I ask it after such a paragraph. Please, forgive. The last thing I want to do is make anyone feel miserable or guilty about having a good time. You should enjoy Christmas. You should celebrate. There is no reason to feel guilty about feeling good. But not everyone will be feeling all that great this Christmas. Has there been someone in your close family who has passed away since last Christmas? Have you lost a job or experienced a significant downturn in your fortunes over the past year? Will this be the first Christmas in a new home? What if all three of those answers were yes this year? What would that be like? How would you feel?
For tens of thousands of people on the north side of my town, this will be their first Christmas in their new home. They will be remembering those they have lost, not to sickness but to chemical attacks, barrel bombs, or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when they became a statistic we euphemistically call “collateral damage”. There will be hundreds of thousands of others for whom this is not their second or third Christmas under conditions they had long since expected to change. Some fled here in the fall of 2014 when ISIS took Kobani. Some of them have been waiting since then for a door to finally open for them to go to the US, or Canada, or Germany, or… anywhere. But nobody wants them. Others are waiting for it to finally become safe for them to return to their homeland, even though they know that their homes and communities will never again be the same. Some no longer have any hope for anything. They are simply trying to survive today… and then tomorrow. What will Christmas be like for the refugee?
Last year I had the opportunity to share the Christmas story at a school I was working with. We started with the announcement to Mary and carried the story through all the way to the flight to Egypt. As you can probably guess, it was the last part of the story that resonated most with them. Jesus was an immigrant. Jesus was a refugee who fled his home moments before Herod committed the war crime of killing anyone in that little town who had the misfortune of being less than two years old. I see Syrian refugees on a regular basis. Many of them worship in the very same church that I do every Sunday. I have heard many of their stories as told both by adults and by children. Even still, I cannot possibly imagine what it is like to celebrate Christmas as a refugee. I can hear with my mind and my heart can break for them, but I cannot truly know for I have never walked in their shoes. Jesus has.
So I ask again, what will your Christmas be like? I remember a well-meaning friend sit with me at lunch days after my father passed away. He said, “I know what you are going through.” In my mind, I was thinking, “No you don’t.” His father had died after a battle with cancer about four years earlier. Mine had died about four days earlier after an accident on the basketball court. The situations aren’t the same and even if they were, he isn’t experiencing the freshness, the rawness I was in that moment. Nobody can truly know what we are going through. Although they are similar, no two refugees stories are identical. Each one has a very unique pain. If this is a hard holiday season for you, nobody else will truly be able to understand exactly what you are experiencing. Except for Jesus.
What will your Christmas be like? Will it be hard? Will it be empty? Will it bring to the surface pain beyond what you ever imagined you could handle? I wish for all of us it would not be so. I pray that this is the last such Christmas any refugee would ever have to face. But I know this side of heaven there will continue to be pain. There will continue to be loss. There will continue to be suffering. If this Christmas is one in which you are experiencing an unfairly large portion of such, I pray that all mortal flesh would stay silent. I pray that you might hear the comfort of an immortal God who has experienced a disproportionate amount of pain of his own. He is the only one who truly understands what you are going through.