On Christmas Eve, our family has our traditional Christmas dinner, this year at my oldest daughter’s home. We actually had a Christmas lunch so that we could finish a little earlier than usual as we needed to pick up Fawouzia, Clarisse, Audrey and their friend Sidonie. We had learned earlier that week that Zoukourouf had gotten married to a man she met in the camps and had moved to Denver. Fawouzia and the ladies were all excited to spend the night at Katie’s home and wake up to their first Christmas in America.
As we sat in our truck waiting for them to emerge from their little apartment building, the temperature began to drop as the sun set. It was a bitter 23 degrees out with a slight chance of freezing rain. Given that our new friends are from central Africa, the weather is not an easy adjustment for them and they came from their building bundled up against the frigid air. As we waited for two of our passengers, I heard a little voice with excitement say, “Hallo Grrrandma!” and there was Fawouzia with a ready smile and big hug. I asked how she was doing and she replied, “I am well. Merry Christmas!” She was beaming and clearly quite proud of this new addition to her English vocabulary. Rides sorted out, we set out to Katie’s house.
The local paper had requested to send a reporter and photographer early Christmas morning to capture the moments and record the story. Through generous donations from our church, there was a mound of gifts for them all. Including much-needed gloves, mittens, socks and caps. Katie has four children so the tree was quite crowded with gifts and her home was glittering with festive decorations and filled with beautiful holiday spirit. Fawouzia was quite overwhelmed and thrilled just to be there. The Christmas story was read, everyone received new Christmas pajamas, and a picture was taken in front of the tree. As everyone settled in for the night, it was clear that they really had no idea what to expect the next morning.
Christmas morning dawned cold and bright and the Gazette was at the door at 8:00 as promised. With five children under eleven in the house, there was a controlled madness as they all entered the family room. Oddly, Clarisse, Audrey, and Sidonie seemed reluctant to join everyone and took about thirty minutes to emerge, fully dressed for the day. In the meantime, Fawouzia was a bit hesitant and was happy to stand back slightly as Katie’s little ones began sorting presents with squeals of excitement.
Katie coaxed Fawouzia over to a large light-up hula-hoop and said, “For you!” Fawouzia looked in disbelief and then with a huge smile, in the middle of the paper and ribbon mayhem immediately began wiggling furiously as she hula-hooped away. After a few minutes, other gifts were presented to her and she looked a little confused. Katie urged her to open them. She hesitated and then said, “I no open.” At this point, she took her prized hula-hoop and went to show her mother, Audrey, her special gift. She returned some time later with the ladies who shyly wished everyone, “Joyeux Noel” and sat demurely on the sofa, clearly prepared to quietly watch the proceedings. Katie hopped up and rummaged through the gifts and presented each of them with a couple of brightly wrapped packages. They looked stunned and quite surprised that they, too, were to be included in the magic. Like Fawouzia, they were content to open only one gift, choosing to save the rest for later. They looked on as everyone else continued with gift giving and receiving and seemed bemused by it all.
They were overwhelmed by the generosity of gifts and so very grateful for being included and thought of. The reporter and photographer were quietly snapping pictures and taking notes and as things wound down, sat with the ladies and began their interview.
Sidonie told how she had spent nearly ten years in the refugee camp in Chad before she was able to complete the process of entry as a refugee into the United States. Audrey related the story of her family being shot and the reporters were quite taken with their stories of patience as they waited for refuge from the horrors in their home country. In Clarisse’s words, “Christmas better here than Africa. Christmas good, happy.” Although Clarisse celebrated The Day of Jesus in her native country, this Christmas was the first of its kind for them all. Later in the day, they accompanied us to church and as congregation members welcomed them and wished them a Merry Christmas, they were full of smiles and politely returned a charming accented,”Merrry Chrristmas!” They sat and listened to the choir and even joined in some of the Christmas hymns that were familiar and seemed so very grateful for every moment of the day.
I keep thinking about Christmas day. I keep thinking about these amazingly strong, beautiful and brave women and little Fawouzia, and how strange our customs must seem to them. How must it be to have to leave everything one knows and loves, including family members, just to survive…just to live another day? What do they think of the extravagance and excess that Americans so often take for granted? It must be noted here that Katie and her family have always put Christ first in Christmas, and by no means do they commercialize the season and celebrate by an overabundance of things. But, even their modest gift giving and plentiful food must have seemed quite over the top and perhaps somewhat frivolous to them. I wonder what we, as privileged Americans, would do if suddenly thrust into the abject poverty and life-threatening everyday danger these people escaped from.
I wonder how many of us would whine and cry and bemoan the circumstances only to give up because survival was just too much work. How many of us would be brave enough to face an entirely new existence, a new language, a new culture, a new climate because it was the only way to have a life for ourselves or our children? And then to be met with mistrust, or pity or hatred…simply for coming to a country which claims to welcome those yearning to be free and which promises the refuge they desperately seek?
As we turn to a new year, I hope that as Americans, instead of finding all that is wrong with our lives, our country, our society and our government, we can instead choose to be grateful for all that is right with the freedoms we enjoy. But for the Grace of God, we could have been born elsewhere and not know the simple liberty of enjoying Christmas with our families in safety and comfort. As we turn from 2016 to 2017, I pray that we turn from an entitled nation to a nation of gratitude. That we find joy and pleasure in the simple things in life and in the great gifts of our nation. I hope that we can remember the words of a small impoverished boy who embodied the spirit of gratitude at Christmas and always. As Dickens wrote and Tiny Tim said, “God bless us everyone.”
Happy New Year.