MAGHDOUSHE, Lebanon: Like many Syrian Christian refugees, Bassam Qaloumi and his family, from the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, are celebrating Christmas this year in Lebanon, clinging to the hope that one day they’ll return home.
However, what they didn’t expect was that they would spend the holiday in a prefabricated one-room house originally built for agricultural workers in the southern village of Maghdoushe, which has received dozens of Muslim families and four Christian families from Syria.
“I decorated the tree given to my children so I could bring some joy to their hearts,” Qaloumi said, speaking in the room he began calling home six months ago, when he fled 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 accommodations in Maghdoushe, east of the southern coastal city of Sidon.
“Christmas this year is sad, but I decorated the tree, which one of Maghdoushe residents offered, so the children would feel the joy of the holidays.”
“We were living in a spacious house in Maaloula, where [once] there was peace and generosity and we would receive all our relatives and neighbors,” Lara recalls while tending to the family meal simmering on the stove.
“We used to decorate a huge Christmas tree with a [Nativity] crèche underneath,” she said, sharing in her husband’s complaints 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 next door. 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 still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.
“We lived in peace, Muslims and Christians together,” Lara Qaloumi recalls of her town. “Today we are living off the generosity of good people. I cry whenever I hear the sound of the church bells.”
“Joy has been taken away from us,” she sighs, hoping that the war in her country will soon come to an end.
While playing in the 20-square-meter shelter, Louis, like many kids of his age, wants to know what Santa Claus has brought him this year.
“I hope Santa brings me a nice present,” he says while playing with a plastic Santa doll.
He also misses his village. “I want to go back to my school at the Saint Taqla Monastery in Maaloula,” he says.
Bassam 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 for us.”
“I hope my relatives will be released and I pray to God that the kidnapped nuns are returned.”
Earlier this month, rebels seized a group of nuns from their convent in Maaloula. They appeared in footage a week later, saying fierce bombardment had forced them to leave the monastery with the rebels. There are conflicting reports as to whether or not the nuns left under duress.