On the last Saturday before Christmas, a community of Iraqi refugees living in Lebanon’s capital city of Beirut gathered together for the celebration of Mass.
Like the city they live in, the church building used by the Parish of St. Elias is not their own; It is another Eastern Catholic Church, Melkite Greek, lent to them three days a week for Mass, catechism classes, and other community activities.
And on the evening of Dec. 22nd, the church was also the location of a Christmas choral concert put on by a group of the refugee community’s young people; those who have “a beautiful voice,” as one non-performer described it.
The Chaldean Church, which can trace its roots back to at least the third century, has only been present in Lebanon for about the last 115 years. The first Chaldeans in Lebanon began when one priest and around 25 families from Iraq, Syria, and Iran arrived in the country, the Chaldean Bishop of Beirut, Michel Kassarji, told CNA.
He said that around 1914 another large group arrived in the country, fleeing Christian genocide in Turkey. Today, Lebanese Chaldeans number about 10,000, with most living in the capital city of Beirut. These 10,000 are served by two priests.
Added to these in recent years are around 3,500 Chaldean families, just a small portion of the estimated over 1.5 million refugees who fled to Lebanon from the instability, conflict, and terrorism in their home countries.
“Our duty as a Church is to serve these people as we can,” Kassarji said, which his diocese does in part through two refugee centers, one at the Parish of St. Elias.
Saturday’s anticipatory Mass, for the fourth Sunday of Advent, was celebrated in the Chaldean language, a dialect of Aramaic. It was said in a simple manner by Fr. Yousif Mikha who is studying in Beirut and who helps with the refugees. It was attended by a few dozen mothers, fathers, young people, and children.
Afterward, more people began to trickle into the church for the concert, and it was filled with a peaceful, but joyful energy, as people greeted each other, conversing softly over the noise of the choir’s final rehearsal.
People were open and friendly, and readily shared their stories about life in Iraq and in Lebanon.
“I and my husband do not work here, and this is difficult. We don’t like anything. We suffer here,” one woman from Baghdad told CNA. A mother of two school-age girls, she said she and her family have been in Beirut for two years, and that they are waiting to go to any city that is safe. “I don’t want to return to Iraq,” she said. “Life in Iraq is difficult now.”
Wilson Yonan, a husband and father of girls aged six and three, arrived with his family one and a half years ago. He explained that it is not legal for refugees to work because they are undocumented, though some companies will hire them for lower-than-average wages. Or some are paid to work at the church.
He would not return to Iraq, he said. “In my opinion, it won’t be safe in the near future. It needs a long time to be safe again. So that Christians can go back and live there again.”
About life in Lebanon, “what can I say?” he said. “We are going through some bad circumstances here because the living is really expensive.” He added: “We’re waiting to travel to one of the hosting countries, like Australia, Canada, the U.S.”
A 15-year-old boy named Issa said the same thing. His eyes lit up and he smiled as he explained that “soon,” he and his family would be moving to Canada, to rejoin two of his four sisters who were recently granted visas to enter the country.
The disappointment showed in his face as he shared that he had hoped to be celebrating Christmas in Canada this year, not in Lebanon, where he has lived with his parents and five siblings since he was a small child. “But it’s ok,” he said reassuringly, as he looked away.
Every single one of the refugees is waiting to leave and to go to Canada, Australia, or the United States, the director of the center, Raphael, told CNA. Visa applications are not something the center helps the Iraqi refugees with directly, but they provide legal support if needed.
Funded by aid given through the Chaldean Diocese in Beirut, the center runs programs to help refugees with rent and medical expenses, leads catechism lessons for children, and offers classes in things like English and IT for adults. The diocese also recently built a new school for over 100 children, overseen by 12 teachers who are also members of the community.
“We try to give them hope in the first place,” Raphael said. “It’s to feel like a family. I’m not just a director, I have this paternal figure [for them].”
Raphael, who is half Iraqi and half Lebanese, works one day a week as a sociology professor at a local university. But the other days he devotes himself completely to the community as a volunteer full-time director.
His dedication to the community is personal, he said. “I feel that these people who are displaced, they need more love than anything else. It’s not only relief work, it’s more giving love, giving tenderness to people that are really in bad conditions [spiritually], before being in bad conditions materially.”
“It’s small things that can make changes,” he noted, pointing to the evening’s Christmas concert as an example. It is about helping them to feel at home, not “displaced or abandoned,” he said.
“Activities like this one make them feel that they are doing something for the community. Especially the young ones that are going to sing today.”
The evening’s performance, of well over an hour, included songs in Arabic and Chaldean. At one particularly beautiful moment, the choir was silent, while Fr. Raphael Traboulsi, vicar general of the diocese, sang a portion of the Gospel of Matthew in Aramaic.
“Christmas,” Yonan said, “is a time of rethinking, rethinking about what God did for us. We were apart from God because of original sin. God wanted to bring us back. That’s why he sent his son Jesus to save us and bring us back home.”
“And,” he added, “it’s a time for party and entertainment, because it’s a happy time.”