By STEPHANIE SALDAÑ- The New York Times
In the city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, Christmas is approaching. A tree on the main square is alight in blue; a Nativity scene has Mary and Joseph standing vigil beside the baby Jesus. Locals are busily shopping for gifts and sipping coffee at cafes.
Just 15 minutes up the road, at the refugee and migrant camp called Moria, it is not Christmas but winter that is approaching. More than 6,000 souls fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts — in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo — are crowded in a space meant for 2,330. The scene is grim: piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery. The stench is overwhelming.
I have visited many refugee camps in the Middle East, but never have I seen anything like Moria, a place Pope Francis has likened to a concentration camp. I have also never understood the true meaning of Christmas — a story in which Jesus was born into a family that became refugees — until I visited the people who are now forced to call it home.
Among them are Kareema and her elderly mother, Kamila, who spent the past few years trapped in Deir al-Zour in Syria under the rule of the Islamic State. (I’m using only the first names of the refugees I spoke with out of concern for their safety and their pending asylum applications.) “There was no electricity; we were using oil lamps. It was as though we returned to the Stone Ages,” Kareema told me. Though they suffered terribly — “We left because there were no longer doctors, hospitals or health care,” she said — nothing prepared mother and daughter for Moria. “If I would have known, I wouldn’t have come,” she told me. “I would have died in my own country.”
Moria opened as a “hot spot,” or refugee processing center, in 2015, a year in which more than a million refugees streamed into Europe. Lay the blame for the squalid conditions in the camp on the 2016 European Union-Turkey agreement, struck to discourage refugees from taking the sea route to Europe. Those who arrive on the Greek islands now must wait to be processed by the European Union before proceeding to the mainland. The wait can be months, with no guarantee that requests for asylum will be granted. The combination of waiting, uncertainty, overcrowding and unlivable conditions has created what appears to be an intentional epidemic of despair, meant to dissuade refugees from seeing Europe as a haven.
Though the camp is off limits to journalists, I slipped through the entrance earlier this month. Toilets are so few and so filthy that refugees have cut holes in the high fencing that surrounds the complex so that they can urinate and defecate outside. The perimeter of the camp is fouled with human excrement.
The lack of hygiene and the violence have prompted some refugees to move to the olive groves outside the camp. There I talked with young men from Mosul, Basra and Baghdad in Iraq, from Dara’a and Aleppo in Syria, and from Gaza.
Murtda fled militias in Basra, afraid that he would be either detained or killed. Mostafa from Gaza, looking much younger than his 21 years, listed the wars he has survived. When I asked him about the crossing from Turkey, he boasted: “I wasn’t scared. I’m used to war, and I know how to swim.”
Anwar from Mosul spoke quietly. Older than his siblings, he traveled alone from Iraq last month and now helps to watch over many younger refugees. His family lived in Iraq for generations. “Then came the month of June 2014, and our lives ended,” he said. The Islamic State took over, and his neighborhood was destroyed by fighting.
“I don’t sleep at night, because with the dreams are nightmares,” he said. “What we saw! Small children getting killed. With an adult, you don’t know if they were a good person or a terrorist. But what did a child ever do?”
The Christmas story is their story more than anyone else’s. It is a story of displacement, in which Mary and Joseph leave their home and give birth to Jesus in strange city. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is born at the margins of society, poor and wrapped in cloth and laid “in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” In Matthew, an angel warns Joseph that King Herod wants to kill his son and orders, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt.” These three are a holy family of refugees.
If we want to imagine the Nativity, we needn’t to go farther than the tent of Alaa Adin from Syria, who left his home just days after he married. Now his wife is pregnant, and when I met them they were living in a tent outside of Moria, because there was no room for them inside.
If we want to see today’s flight to Egypt, we needn’t look far: Nearly every refugee I’ve ever met has a story about escaping in the middle of the night.
If we want to understand a life upended for a census, we need only ask those refugees whose futures are uncertain until their asylum requests are processed, their entire lives now held hostage to bureaucracy.
If we want a miracle, I’d suggest looking at Anwar, who despite crying while recounting the destruction of Mosul, still paused in the middle and offered me a clementine.
As we live through the largest migration in modern history, Christmas invites us to recognize our story in the millions who have been displaced by tyrants, war and poverty and to see their stories in ours.
There is much at stake for them in our looking. If the people I met don’t get out of the camp soon, they risk freezing to death. But looking at Moira can also teach us about what Christmas really is — a story of how our salvation is bound up in the lives of those who suffer most.
Today Moria is Bethlehem. Those stranded inside are not humans to be disposed of, but Emmanuel, God with us.
Stephanie Saldaña is the author, most recently, of “A Country Between” and the founder of Mosaic Stories, a storytelling project about displaced communities from the Middle East.