Chaldeans celebrate Christmas

bilde3.jpgIraqi refugees gather for Yuletide party amid concerns for family and friends still overseas.
Gregg Krupa / The Detroit News
WARREN — For many of the 5,000 refugees from Iraq living in Metro Detroit, almost any Christmas celebration is merrier than what they have had since the war began in 2003.

As about one-fourth of them, more than 1,200 Chaldean refugees, gathered in the Bella Hall on Sunday for a Christmas party organized by the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of the United States of America, the joy of the season is tempered by thoughts of the suffering and fret of recent Christmases past. And the deep furrows in the foreheads of some of the refugees revealed their continuing concern about family, relatives and friends left behind in the war, or struggling in uncertain circumstances as refugees in countries like Syria and Jordan.

“We were able to celebrate Mass last year, and there were lots of Christians around us,” Bushra Alawerdi said of her Christmas in exile in Syria in 2007. “But there was also lots of frustration. We are better, now. Though still not the same as before the war, of course
“In my area in Baghdad, where I lived, they invaded my home and took all of my belonging,” said Alawerdi, who arrived with her husband and four children earlier this year. “We had no choice but to leave. And, no, I would not like to return.

“The language is tough for us here,” she said, through an interpreter. “We are still looking for jobs. The money is short. But, for sure, I am more happy, this year, than last year.” bilde11.jpg

Chaldeans, Catholics of the Eastern Rite, are the oldest community of Christians in the world. They reside in Metro Detroit in larger numbers than anywhere outside of Iraq. Long delays in processing the refugee status of the Chaldeans worsened their plight, as they languished, waiting to join family and relatives in the United States.

A critical mass of the refugees has now arrived, living in large numbers, many in Warren and Sterling Heights. But their longing for a better life in the country that led a coalition that launched the war in their land five years ago is running headlong into the financial downturn faced by Americans. The land golden with opportunity that they believed they would arrive in lost some its luster, as they bided their time, waiting for permission to come.

“The decision to make a Christmas dinner for the refugees and the new arrivals in the United States is to show them that there are brothers and sisters who love them here, and they will try to make them happy in every way that is possible,” said Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim, who presides over the Chaldean Catholic diocese, and who decided to organize the large Christmas party.

“We want them to feel that they are not abandoned by others,” Ibrahim said. “We want them to feel that there are people behind them who are thinking of them, and who love them. But they also have to take their part, in all of this.”

For some of the Christian refugees, who have witnessed the worst of war, perhaps this Christmas will mark a new beginning of trust and hope.

“I saw a lot of bad things,” said Aamira Botris, speaking through an interpreter. “Very, very horrible things, we all saw it. I am content with everything, now, except there are not jobs available.”

Botris is with her mother, Rimzia Yono, finally, on this Christmas. Yono came to Metro Detroit six years ago.

“Last year, at Christmas, we were in Amman, Jordan,” Botris said. “But our happiness was not complete, because our family was not together. I am very happy, now, because I am with my mother. But I am still sad, this year, because my sister Sarab Botris, remains in Amman. She is registered as a refugee, but they have not accepted her yet, or even interviewed her. She has three daughters with her.”

The local Chaldean community is doing much to welcome the refugees. But amid concern about whether the economy in Michigan will allow for enough to be done, the Christmas party is viewed as a hopeful gesture of solidarity, faith and themes of the season.

“The reason for this invitation is to deliver the message of Christmas, which is a message of love and hope,” said Janan Senawi, who helped organize the party on behalf of the Chaldean diocese, and who counsels many refugees as a psychologist for the Arab Chaldean Council, in Lathrup Village. “They have all been through a lot, and during their transition we wanted to help them into our community, into our churches. It was a gesture to share a meal with them, to give each family a gift.”

The families all received a $50 gift card from Meijer, and the children received a present, in addition to the party, which included Christmas carols and a large meal.

Milad Latif, who lives in Shelby Township, spent five years in Amman, waiting to come to the United States. He said he considers himself among the lucky ones, because his extended family in Metro Detroit called to warn his family in Iraq, before the war, that trouble was on the way.

“I left one month before the war,” said Latif, who has learned from news reports that the large commercial and residential building that was his family’s home in Baghdad has been a frequent target of bombing, from American planes as well as the car bombs of the resistance and the terrorists. “Last year, I was in Amman, with my sister, but my mom and my brother and my sister were here. So, at Christmas, we were separated, and you can imagine how Christmas was.

“Most of the refugees, thank God for it, because they are alive and safe,” he said. “The economy is bad, but no one is asking where you are going, what are you doing, are you going to church? You can live free. That’s the important thing.”