Christmas Joy Amid Uncertainty Christian refugees celebrate the Nativity in the U.S.

  • Written by:

Joan Frawley Desmond and Kathy Schiffer
QUEENS, N.Y. — Marina Markos, a Coptic Orthodox Christian refugee from Cairo, Egypt, plunged into the 2016 Christmas season in Queens, New York — the city she now calls home, after immigrating to the United States earlier this year.

Delighted by the Christmas decorations that festoon local stores and the holiday greetings publicly exchanged by friends and acquaintances, Markos remembered the more restricted celebrations of her religious community in Egypt.

“Christmas is about preparing our hearts and then our homes to receive Jesus as a baby,” Markos told the Register.

“Christians in Egypt decorate their homes and have a Christmas tree inside, but not outside — we can’t.

“So this is the first time I will have a real Christmas, with the Christmas spirit everywhere, with public celebrations and people congratulating everyone,” added Markos, a client of the Immigrant and Refugee Services, Catholic Charities New York.

“I feel so lucky. People here are not afraid of being killed or harmed for being Christian.”

But in the final weeks before Christmas, the young Christian’s newfound sense of peace was shattered by news that a suicide bomber had attacked a chapel adjacent to Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, during Dec. 11 Sunday services.

At least 25 people, most of them women and children, were killed in the latest attack against Egypt’s beleaguered Christian community, which represents about 10% of the country’s population and faces ongoing restrictions and penalties for practicing their faith.

Markos’ sister and brother, who also hope to emigrate to the U.S., presently live near the Cairo cathedral. And while they were not harmed, the bombing reminded the entire family that the two siblings are vulnerable to future attacks.

“You go to church to pray and find peace, and, at any moment, your life could be over,” said Markos.

“The terrorists wanted people to be sad during Christmas, so they can’t celebrate this season. The message is: ‘We can do whatever we want to you, and you can’t respond.’”

The Pope’s Prayers

This Christmas, the conflicted emotions of refugees like Marina Markos — joy in a new sense of security and freedom, punctuated by traumatic memories and fears for loved ones back home — are felt by other newcomers from the region who have settled in the United States. And many find strength in Pope Francis’ strong repudiation of violence in the name of religion and his prayers for the suffering Church.

“We are united in the blood of our martyrs,” Pope Francis told Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria in a phone call that offered his condolences and denounced the cathedral bombing.

The Holy Father’s comments underscored the Church’s grave concern for ancient Christian communities that are under threat. The 2015 execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS), the terror organization, may stand as the most shocking testament to Christian persecution in recent years, but believers in the region face a number of challenges to their security and political and legal rights.

In Syria and Iraq, wartime violence and a campaign of anti-Christian genocide prosecuted by ISIS have emptied out Christian towns and neighborhoods.

Aid to the Church in Need, a Church-affiliated agency that works in the region, estimates that 400,000 Syrian Christians have left their country.

In Iraq, tens of thousands of displaced Christians have found shelter in Kurdistan, where they await the end of the brutal, protracted battle to recapture Mosul, Iraqi’s second-largest city, from the Islamic State group.

Experience of Freedom

Faced with the destruction of their ancestral villages, churches and businesses, and worried about the long-term status of religious minorities in the Middle East, many Christians have applied for asylum abroad, and some have been accepted for resettlement in the U.S.

Yet those who are able to resettle in the U.S. can find it hard going, at least at first. Even during Christmas, when religious celebrations and family gatherings sustain a sense of hope in uncertain circumstances, the experience of war and persecution cast a shadow over the season.

Iraqi immigrant Qussay Slaiwy, who arrived in the U.S. in October, has not forgotten the sense of danger that defined the Christian family’s existence in Iraq.

“We were afraid someone would knock on the door and kill us. You never knew: Who was your enemy? Who was your friend?” Slaiwy told the Register during an interview facilitated by Nidhal Hadid, a case worker from United Community Family Services/CALC, a refugee assistance agency.

In Iraq, Qussay’s wife, Rija, would take their daughters Sedweniya, 11, and Samarya, 10, to school, and then remain with them all day to protect them.

But now, after only two months in their new apartment in a Detroit suburb, the family has begun to experience a freedom that had eluded them in Iraq, and Qussay hopes to eventually find work as a truck driver.

There is no money for a Christmas tree this year, but the family’s living room is graced by two statues of Mary and Jesus, and they are looking forward to Mass on Christmas Eve.

Sandra Ameer was just 16 when she moved with her family to the U.S. and joined the large Chaldean community in the Detroit suburbs, where church services are available in Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ.

Five years later, she still can recall the shocking images she witnessed as a fifth-grader, when a deadly bomb exploded near her school.

“There were probably 30 people killed, and there were heads on the floor and so much blood. … Many people died in front of me. That was the hardest thing,” Ameer told the Register.

Now, she is fluent in English and a student at Oakland Community College, where she is pursuing studies in transportation design. This Christmas, she and her extended family will gather for church services and celebrations as they once did in Baghdad.

“First we go to church; and then after … we’ll have a big lunch at Grandma’s house, and everyone brings two dishes — a dessert and a main dish. After, we have a ‘Secret Santa’ [exchange], and we play Bingo. Christmas music is played, and there will be dancing.”

Helping Others

Qussay Slaiwy, Sandra Ameer and their families have depended on the services of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute founded by Joseph Kassab, a Chaldean from Iraqi who arrived in 1980. His agency encourages Iraqi Christians to provide one-on-one services for newcomers struggling to adapt to U.S. life.

English classes and updating professional certifications are top priorities. The new arrivals also need help with housing, health care and transportation. So Kassab believes that the Christmas season should include ongoing support for the needy, as well as time for decorating the family Christmas tree and gathering for holiday meals.

“We celebrate Christmas like any other Christian Americans,” he told the Register.

“But our main celebration is helping others. We celebrate Christmas by giving clothes, food and money through church organizations and directly to those in need.”

Ashwaq Jwaida, a Chaldean who immigrated to the U.S. in 1996 and now owns four Tim Hortons coffee franchises in the Detroit area, has embraced that message.

Twenty years ago, she left Iraq to join family members in the Detroit area and had little experience with religious persecution. But in 2010, after six jihadis attacked Baghdad’s Sayedat al-najat (Our Lady of Salvation) Syriac Catholic Church, killing 58 and wounding 78, Jwaida realized that a new wave of Christian refugees from her native land needed practical and emotional support. She and her husband have hired about 50 Iraqi immigrants since then.

Some are employed as servers, while those with weak English skills are given baking and cleaning jobs.

“Right now, I have three bakers. Two of them are former engineers — but they couldn’t find jobs in their field, so I’ve hired them and trained them to bake for me,” said Jwaida, who also helps new arrivals read their mail, register their children at school and enroll in English as a Second Language programs at a local community college.

California Chaldeans

On Christmas Eve, employers and employees will join together to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Chaldean Catholic and Orthodox churches in Detroit, even as Chaldeans in other U.S. cities gather for their own distinctive liturgies.

In El Cajon, California, where another vibrant Chaldean immigrant community has put down roots, many of the old religious traditions are still observed: from the celebration of saints’ days to the Advent practice of fasting and the study of Aramaic.

“At one time, to prepare ourselves for Jesus’ coming, we had 50 days of fasting; but that was too harsh, physically, for some people,” Father Michael Bazzi, the pastor of St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral, told the Register.

The cathedral and another church in El Cajon jointly serve more than 45,000 parishioners. Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be celebrated in English, Arabic and Aramaic.

In past years, El Cajon has attracted a steady flow of Chaldean refugees. Now, few come, but Father Bazzi and his community have not forgotten those who remain behind, and money and supplies are sent regularly to displaced Iraqi Christians abroad.

“We are bleeding from sadness for what is happening in Iraq,” he said somberly, as he contemplated the number of families living in refugee camps abroad and others divided by war and immigration delays.

Back in Queens, Marina Markos expressed the same muted excitement about the coming of Christmas.

Still, she is looking forward to Christmas Eve services at St. Mary and St. Anthony Coptic Orthodox Church of Queens, and she is on track to begin academic studies that she hopes will fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a heart surgeon.

“When I was little, my mother told me I have the fingers to become a surgeon,” she said. “I chose the heart because I want to be able to heal the broken heart.”