“They are not safe,” she said quietly to me. She looked at the cushion between us, trying to hide the tears in her eyes.
She continued, answering the question I had asked at this Christmas party: How is your family? “The situation is uncertain… they could go to sleep one night and everything is fine, and wake up in the morning to explosions.”
She named the Iraqi city where they lived. I recognized it from news reports. My friend had lived under the weight of that uncertainty, not knowing how her family survived in a conflict zone, for years before the headlines were published.
Around us, people exchanged greetings, offered hot cider and gingersnaps, and took photos in front of a ten-foot, plastic evergreen.
She changed the subject.
I squeezed her arm and then let it go. My mind flashed to the green eyes of one of our Young Leaders’ students, Ramah. Her family was from another area of the Middle East that has, worldwide, become identified with conflict.
I had met her on the last day of Young Leaders’ registration, standing on the other side of our community center’s locked gate. We had already interviewed 300 applicants, and we knew we could only accept 120 into the English/leadership development program.
Ramah had arrived five minutes too late. I was the director; my job was to help the teachers and volunteers to keep balanced and to thrive, and they had been working late nights the entire week. She stared back at me, her green eyes unblinking, as I gently asserted that the teachers were all done giving interviews, and she would have to go home.
She pled her case like a lawyer. I was here on time, but had to go home and get my dad to do the application paperwork. Just let me interview. I’m not going home until you do. Please, just give me the chance.
One of the teachers heard and offered to interview her. She was accepted on the spot.
Throughout Young Leaders, this young woman had a look and a smile like she was amused but was not going to tell you why. She developed her strengths in working on a team, speaking to persuade, and communicating in English. A year and a half after our first meeting, just a few days before her graduation from Young Leaders, I noticed Ramah at our Thanksgiving event.
We had asked all the students to write something they were thankful for. Her answer, outlined in purple, was: My family feeling safe.
I asked her about her story. She told of a time in her home country, as her brother was playing outside with his friends, and explosions happened . They did not know if he was dead or alive. She repeated the details twice; though it happened years ago, the feeling and the event remained vivid in her mind.
Now, she knows gratitude for something most of the other youth take for granted, and something my Iraqi friend lives without.
I thought also of my talk with you. You told me after hours’ worth of tears had dried.
A tragedy, a complicated and painful situation, that would change your family’s life and smash routines like a stormy green wave against a rocky shore. I sat two feet away from you, wanting to give a hug, to comfort with presence, but your face was an image on the other side of a computer screen.
So the only solace I had to offer was an ear for listening. “It doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore,” you said.
Later I told you how some local celebrations, typically held by a minority group here, have been scaled down this year. There is sorrow and tension, aftermath of the news that I first heard via an e-mail sent by the U.S. Embassy.
Its the kind of bulletin that we sometimes receive, but usually can dismiss as cautious warnings about minor events. This time, the words seemed like nonsense; I read them twice, thinking, Not here. We had recently gone on a day trip to this location, my coworkers and my Arab mamas and I.
And now it was the scene of violence, the embassy said. “Active Shooter Situation.”
Against this background, they tell me to pick up my guitar and sing the reasons we can make merry, because it is Christmas Eve. I pull wrinkled music sheets out of dusty folders, and play the old songs, familiar to my church in New York, the people I sang with a decade ago in Indonesia, my fellow foreginers in this city, and even many of the Arabs here in the land where I have made my home for the last three Christmases.
But this evening we add another song.
I look at those gathered, then at my Iraqi friend. This is a song of peace, even as we think about the places, and people whom we love, who do not have that. He came to bring peace… Even to a place where peace and goodwill seem to have been gobbled by hate.
Where governments grasp for power.
Where families grieve.
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
As in ancient Bethlehem, so it is now. He is unwelcomed by some– at the gates of an inn, from a king in power– but unwilling to walk away until He has done what He came for.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
My “word” for the year, abundance, at times depicted loss and sorrow; at times it described laughter and love. But the green shoot of hope that seemed to fade with the chill springs up again, full of life– in abundance–as I glimpse peace. Not my emotional status or a transient season, but peace in a Person.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
All stories show me that, even when I get a glimpse from a second story, my perspective is still limited. Eternal mysteries and untold tales draw me higher and higher. And so I put my hope in the Peace who overcomes situations and lasts every season, and choose the same word for 2017.