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Christmas a solemn affair for Syrian Christians
A worker decorates a Christmas tree in front of a Mosque in Sidon, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)
A worker decorates a Christmas tree in front of a Mosque in Sidon, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)
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ZAHLE, Lebanon: Index finger to her chin, Mirna Issa lists the ingredients from her family’s ambariyeh recipe – pitted cherries, sugar, brandy, whiskey, cinnamon – but something is missing, and she can’t recall what it is. It was her favorite part of Christmas in her neighborhood of Suleimanieh in Aleppo, where she is from and which she fled a year ago.

Issa will relate the story of her family’s heartrending departure from the city (at first impossible, she says, because of the siege), their dire financial situation (“No tree this year, no presents”), and the crippling depression that kept her ensconced indoors for the first three months of her arrival to Zahle, before the liqueur mystery is solved:

“Ah, and cloves!” she says, gesticulating wildly.

“We would prepare it in August, preserve everything together in a jar so that when Christmas came, the flavors would have infused impeccably.”

Back in Suleimanieh, Christmas was a family affair. The narrow streets were decorated by local residents, the entire neighborhood was alight with gleeful children, and families would congregate at the local church for Mass.

“We went to church and we prayed, it was normal, but it felt so special,” she says, sitting in her small living room, which is furnished thanks to the goodwill of her Lebanese neighbors. Charity is something Issa has come to live by, and perhaps that is why the prospect of spending Christmas in Zahle is disconcerting.

“I’m a little bit sad because I’m not at home,” she says, but stresses that they had to no choice but to leave Aleppo, the bombardment having become too much for her three children.

“I think, this year [for Christmas] the main thing we will do is pray,” she says solemnly. A local resident bought her 17-year-old son a ticket to participate in the city’s planned festivities, and two bottles of red wine were presented to them by another. “This is how we will celebrate, I think.”

“It won’t be the way it was back home, we are among strangers here.”

On a whim one day, Issa did venture to the market to look for a tree. She found one in the local market and inquired about the price.

“LL100,000, they told me,” she says. “My son needed boots, my husband was unemployed, we couldn’t.”

Though the holidays will never be the same in Lebanon, Issa remains positive: “At least my children are close to me and safe, that’s the most important thing.”

Most Syrian Christians have not registered with the UNHCR, fearing this might inadvertently ally them with the Syrian opposition. Many Syrian Christians say they support Assad’s regime and don’t share the deep-seated grievances of the mostly Sunni opposition.

Many Christian refugees turn to the church for assistance instead. The Greek Catholic Saydet al-Naja Church runs many programs for Christian Syrians in Zahle.

Rachel Bayneh, the church’s social affairs coordinator, says about 750 families have registered with them.

On Dec. 28 the church will distribute items to registered families, Bayneh explains, including diapers and milk for all families that have children under the age of 2. Families will also be invited to Mass at the church, where food will be served and gifts distributed to children.

Bayneh said some Christians did register with the UNHCR, but were soon excluded from receiving aid after the agency re-targeted its assistance program to benefit the most vulnerable refugees. “This angered the Christians a lot.”

Doris Qassis, a Syrian Christian mother of two from Aleppo, mistook The Daily Star for Caritas social workers who had come to bring more fuel for her heater. Sitting in her small one-room flat that she shares with her husband and 25-year-old son, she points to her shabby surroundings and says: “Christmas? This is Christmas.”

The apartment can just about fit a double-bed, which is placed next to the window by a pile of blankets that nearly reach the ceiling, two sofas, and a closet and small TV set crammed on either side, making for little leg room.

In the center is the heater, which dispenses liquid diesel from a canister drop-by-drop to feed the kiln and keep Qassis warm.

Her home in Aleppo was bombarded. “It’s gone now,” she says.

A hereditary kidney disease has left her husband unable to work, and the family survives off the earnings of her oldest son, who works as a pizza delivery boy. Her youngest is serving as a soldier for the Syrian regime and was jailed a few months ago for losing his rifle.

She doesn’t say a word about Christmas, but her indifferent shrug whenever the subject is broached sufficed to say it all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 24, 2013, on page 4.
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