Uganda: How To Celebrate Christmas In The Refugee Camp

“I often tell them in the Refugees Settlement that Jesus was a Refugee. For at least 12 years of his life, he lived in a strange land deprived of everything, just as many refugees are today…”

For the past six months, I’ve been actively involved in refugee ministry as the Chaplain for Refugees in the Archdiocese of Gulu, ministering to over 36,000 people in Palabek Refugees Settlement in Lamwo District, close to the South Sudan border. I often tell them in the Refugees Settlement that Jesus was a Refugee, at least for about 12 years of his life, he lived in a strange land deprived of everything in life just as they are today. His parents Mary and Joseph made great sacrifices to keep their son alive.

Every refugee wants to return to his or her homeland. They wait for the day to return to their home and start a new life. In the same way, Mary and Joseph took their little son to their home after cruel years spent in Egypt. Perhaps, he was so excited to see Jerusalem, his fatherland and he got lost in his excitement in seeing the magnificent temple in Jerusalem. He showed a great sense of pride and belonging even though he was only 12 years old. Probably, that was the first time he visited Jerusalem, about which he heard so many exciting stories.

Indeed, that was a longing heart of a refugee-returnee to his homeland. The celebration of Christmas and its season every year should remind us of these hard realities of life, which Jesus and his parents went through. In relation to the situation of refugees in Uganda, the message of Christmas and the festive season comes so alive and vivid. Statistics tell us that about 1.2 million refugees are hosted in Uganda. About 86% of the refugees are young women and children. Now, Uganda has become their temporary home. In this temporary home, these ‘unfortunate’ brothers and sisters struggle hard to live with meagre supply of basic things. Even education and medical care becomes a luxury for them.

In all these struggles, it is consoling to know that Jesus became a refugee within few days into his incarnation. Hardship and hostility were the hard realities that Jesus had to face when he decided to be human like us. He chose this way to redeem us… out of love for us. In the refugee situation, children suffer more than the adults. They suffer for the sins and mistakes of others. They are deprived of their childhood, their freedom, their education and their basic needs. The other day I asked a little boy of 10 years, ‘what do you miss most in the refugee camp?’ and his quick answer was, ‘I want to go to school…’. I was in Primary Three and I came here with my parents, I have not gone to school ever since, now I want to go to school. Keeping little children doing nothing is perhaps the biggest punishment we can give them.

What did Mary and Joseph carry to Egypt? Perhaps nothing much. The gospels tell us that there was no place for the pregnant mother to give birth and they were forced to take shelter in a cow-shed. In Bethlehem, they were passers-by, they were strangers, and they were the most needy people. From a miserable place, they had to run to Egypt. A few days ago, I asked a refugee, ‘what did you carry with you when you ran from South Sudan?’ And his quick answer was ‘I grabbed my three year child and my wife took a few pieces of clothes and we ran’. Answer from another man was even more amazing, ‘I went looking for my son but couldn’t find him, but I found my neighbour’s child and I came with her’. In the same way, the only concern of Mary and Joseph was their new born child – Jesus.

At the refugee settlement, one night I went to sleep with a heavy heart. I had just witnessed a group of new arrival of refugees.

They were given small plot of land to pitch their tent, a tarpaulin, five poles of trees and few meters of robes to make a shelter, plus a few household items. As I was giving them some clothes, it began to rain. I ran away to my little hut to seek shelter. But I was sure this group of 30 ‘unfortunate’ people among them women and children spent their night in the rain. Can we picture Mary and Joseph looking for shelter to protect their new born child – Jesus? Besides the issue of refugees and migrants, there are so many other suffering sections of humanity everywhere in the world.

There are people who were abducted, trafficked, enslaved in war and conflict and so many others pushed to the peripheries of the society for the reasons of economy, politics and organised crimes. They all remind us of sufferings and hardships Jesus went through from his birth and throughout his life.

– Father Lazar Arasu

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