Born Into Exile

Christmas with the family this year was one of the best we’ve ever had. As the patriarch of a gathering of thirteen people, I was filled with joy and gratitude to watch the love flow between my sons, their wives and girlfriend, and their offspring. It probably helped that our Christmas dinner was actually a relatively simple but tasty brunch, eliminating some of the stress of cooking.

But for my wife and me, Christmas also carried with it a new dimension, shaped by our experiences last summer with the European refugee crisis. I thought I would share with you the contents of the note that accompanied the ornament, pictured here, we gave to each of our three sons and their families:

Last summer we were forever changed.

As the European refugee crisis began to gain more and more international attention, we began to realize how little we really knew about the complexities of the situation. We decided we needed to understand better, and up close.

Having very little idea what to expect, we signed up to meet up with a team from Servant Group International to work with refugees in Athens. “Work” is a relatively loose term here – if we did any work, it was nothing more than helping with some meal preparation and giving some English lessons. What we mostly did was observe and learn from the Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees we encountered. Some we met at the tent camps at the port of Pyraeus. Others we met at the “squats” – abandoned buildings such as schools, where they had set up tents in the classrooms.

We heard stories of heart-wrenching trauma. We talked to people who were successful, upstanding citizens in their home country before they were forced to flee and leave everything behind. We listened on the verge of tears to accounts of the harrowing, multi-leg journey to where we now sat together. And more than once we were on the receiving end of hospitality that put us to shame.

We quickly learned that many of the refugees we befriended had loves ones waiting for them in Germany, so we decided to follow two or three of the stories and look up some of these loved ones in Berlin. We were mostly successful, and gratified and saddened at the same time to witness the separation first-hand.

Being in Germany brought back a number of family memories, one in particular related to Christmas. Some time in the early 90’s we found ourselves in the so-called “Christmas Village” of Ravensburg, where we wandered, with Jonathan and Michael, through numerous shops filled with more Christmas paraphernalia than you can imagine. In one shop in particular, we walked slowly through a somewhat cramped and cluttered maize of merchandise until it suddenly opened up to a cavernous wonderland of toys, reindeer, winter scenes and countless lights. It was a Disney-esque, sensory overload, especially for a four-year-old. Said four-year-old was so overcome, he had no words to express what he was witnessing. “This is…this is…” and when no other words would come, he coined a word that would live on in Durham family lore: “FLYTUS!”

In Berlin we now found ourselves in a similar Christmas store. As memories of Ravensburg came flooding back, we made our way through the extensive stock of ornaments and other Christmas trappings, hoping to find something that would remind us at future Christmases of our impacting experience with the refugees. We were about to give up when we came across the ornament in this box. It spoke volumes to us:

The love of God become incarnate in Jesus, who along with his parents, began his life as a refugee. It reminded us that for all our efforts to understand the plight of the displaced, no one identifies more with them – or with any of us – than He.

And we will never be the same.

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