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Maaloula family celebrates Christmas in Lebanon
Lara Qaloumi and her children gather around a Christmas tree at their shelter in Maghdouche, east of Sidon, south Lebanon, Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)
Lara Qaloumi and her children gather around a Christmas tree at their shelter in Maghdouche, east of Sidon, south Lebanon, Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)
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SIDON, Lebanon: Like many Syrian Christian refugees, Bassam Qaloumi and his family, originally from Syria’s Maaloula, are celebrating Christmas this year in Lebanon, clinging to the hope one day they’ll return to their town that has been affected by the lingering war next door.

“I decorated the tree that was given to my children so I could put some joy in their hearts,” Qaloumi said, speaking in the room he and his family took refuge in six months ago after fleeing clashes in Maaloula.

“We’re squeezed in this small room as you can see,” Qaloumi, flanked by his wife Lara, son Louis and daughter Catherina, said of the accommodation in Maghdouche, east of the southern city of Sidon.

“We were living in a spacious house in Maaloula, where [once] there was peace and generosity,” Lara recalls.

“We used to decorate a huge Christmas tree with a [Nativity] crèche underneath,” she said, sharing in her husband’s complains of the stark changes the family has had to endure since leaving Maaloula.

The mainly Christian town of Maaloula, north of Damascus, has changed hands several times in the war raging in Lebanon’s neighbor. It is considered a symbol of the ancient Christian presence in Syria, and its 5,000 residents are among the few in the world who speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

“We lived in peace, both Muslims and Christians together,” Lara recalls of her town.

"Today we are living off the generosity of good people,” she said.

“Joy has been taken away from us,” Lara sighs, hoping that the war in her country will come to an end.

While playing in the 20 square-meter shelter, Louis, like many kids of his age, wants to know what Santa Clause has brought him this year.

“I hope Santa brings me a nice present,” he says.

He also misses his village. “I want to go back to my school in Maaloula,” he says.

Qaloumi said he sold all the cows he owned at the cattle ranch in Maaloula at a low price so he “could flee” to Lebanon.

“Gunmen had entered Maaloula. They came to us,” he recalled.

“I hope my relatives will be released and I pray to God that the kidnapped nuns are returned.”

Earlier this month, a group of nuns was seized by rebels from their convent in Maaloula. They appeared in footage a week later, saying fierce bombardment had forced them to leave the monastery with rebels. There are conflicting reports on whether they were moved under duress or not.

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