Christmas in Lebanon: Iraqi refugees remember a happier time

The Christmas atmosphere of ornaments and carols that permeates the streets and shops of the low-income area of Ras el-Dekwaneh in north Beirut stops at the threshold of a small room in a narrow alley, which the joyous atmosphere does not seem to reach. 

The door opens to a family whose members' faces are tinged with great sadness and whose children's eyes have lost the sparkle and enthusiasm of being engrossed with decorating for Christmas. The family of Iraqi Assyrian Ibrahim Jean Chamoun is struggling to endure their forced displacement from Iraq's largest Christian city, Qaraqosh, after attacks by the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) in the summer forced thousands to flee. 

Sisters Evelyn, 10, and Virgine, 9, sit side by side and ask their father: "Won't we have a Christmas tree?" And he answers with some hope: "I have a job appointment tomorrow. If I [get the job], you will get what you want." Preparation for the Christmas holiday is "for the first time not on our agenda. Our forced displacement from our country and our state of extreme financial need preclude us from even thinking about that", the mother, Nisreen, told Al-Shorfa. 

We cannot afford to buy what we want, she said. "We can barely come up with the $400 monthly rent for this room and [enough to buy] whatever we can to appease our hunger, so how can we prepare for Christmas? ISIL has deprived us of everything." "The tree in our house used to be very big," said Evelyn. "I used to decorate it with my mother, sister, and two brothers, Ivan and Stephen. I used to hang my wish written on a white piece of paper on the tree on Christmas Eve." 

Evelyn's wish this year is to "enrol in school so my sister and I can study". "I will not ask my father for anything because I am aware of our new circumstances, but we live the Christmas atmosphere inside of us with prayer and wishes that our ordeal will pass," she adds wistfully. ISIL violence this year displaced thousands of Christian families in Mosul and northern Iraq to several other countries, including Lebanon. 

The Yulius Mansour family also was displaced from Qaraqosh. Mansour and his family -- his wife, Khanam and his two sons, Danny and David, who has a disabled leg -- live in a small room adjacent to that of their relative Chamoun. Standing in the middle of the room that barely gets any sunlight, Mansour told Al-Shorfa, "We cannot celebrate the holiday as we used to in Iraq, with decorations everywhere. We will greet and celebrate the holiday this year with prayer and hope for relief soon." 

His son Danny recalled how their mother used to make sweets at the advent of the holiday and buy them new clothes and toys. On Christmas Day, after mass, they would go to a park with swings in it. "This year, we hope that God sees how we feel and the tragic circumstances through which every Iraqi is going, and instead of a computer or bicycle, gift me peace for our country so we can return to it," he said. 

The Rev. George Youkhana, rector of St. George Assyrian Church in Sad el-Bouchrieh, said the congregation's churches will not leave its Iraqi parishioners by themselves this holiday season. In this regard, Assyrian and Chaldean churches are preparing to distribute food aid and host special holiday celebrations during which they will distribute gifts to children, he told Al-Shorfa. 

Lebanese MP Bahia Hariri, head of the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development, will hold a special Christmas celebration for Iraqis in Lebanon as part of the foundation's Beirut Chants Festival . Held at the Chaldean Cathedral of St. Ephrem in Hazmieh, the celebration will feature a performance by the Four Knights. 

"An affluent Christian family set up a programme to celebrate [the holiday] with Iraqi children -- they will host 200 children in their home on the 21st and serve them lunch, put on an entertainment programme and distribute gifts to them," Rev. Youkhana said. "It is a sad Christmas for Iraq's Christians, who were forcibly displaced," he said. 

"We hope this occasion, which is known for love, will stir up compassion around the world and in charitable people to stand by them so they may enjoy, even for a moment, the joy of Christmas." 

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut
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