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. ...
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. ...
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.