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In this time of Advent, remembering that Jesus was a refugee

by Roger Sandberg, vice president of International Field Operations | Dec 21, 2017


Roger and refugees in Lebanon, 2015
Roger Sandberg, vice president of International Field Operations, in Lebanon with Syrian refugees Kareena, left, and her sister Afaf.

After hearing our team in Turkey earlier this month share some of the Christmas traditions celebrated in both Turkey and Syria, my encouragement to all of us stateside is to take time to remember the context of why we celebrate Christmas.

The story of Christ’s birth conjures striking similarities between that time and today. When we think about our calling at Medical Teams International – to boldly break barriers to health and restore wholeness in a hurting world – it’s humbling to think that it’s our responsibility and privilege to help people who have nowhere else to turn.

So, in this time of Advent, let’s not forget that Jesus was a refugee.

Just think about the story: It starts with a 14-year-old girl, Mary, who’s pregnant. At Medical Teams International, we seek out those who are deeply vulnerable, and they tend to be women and children – people like Mary and her unborn baby. Meanwhile, there’s an occupying force in Israel, the Romans, who are requiring what we would call today “internal displacement.”

Because of these circumstances, Mary had no safe place to give birth. Ideally, we’d want her to do that in a hospital, someplace safe that supports displaced people. But again, we know the story – there’s no room at the inn. She ends up giving birth in an unhygienic manger, a place where animals are born. That is a tremendous risk to both mother and child.

Shortly after the birth, there’s an act of genocide, a declaration that all newborn males are to be killed. Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt with their newborn baby, Jesus. They cross an international border, and in the process become refugees.

Now look at what’s happening in the Middle East, in places where Medical Teams International works: We’re serving refugees – women, children, and fathers – who, because they fear losing their lives, have left their homes. 

And literally, there’s no room at the inn.

I think about a young woman I met in Lebanon named Kareena. She is a Syrian refugee, slightly older than Mary and a very promising woman who was studying computer science. Her family fled Syria when the children were no longer safe. Now, Kareena picks potatoes in the mud for just over a dollar a day.

MTI- Zahle, Lebanon - November 23, 2015 (35)
Kareena is a young Syrian woman who gave up her education to travel to Lebanon with her family. Now, she picks potatoes in a field for $1 a day.

She hopes that she might be able to return to Syria when the conflict ends. But she also acknowledges that it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Though she’s lost years of opportunity, she’s thankful that her family is safe.

Refugees are setting up tents in makeshift camps where there aren’t enough hospitals or clinics nearby to help them. Which is why we show up – it’s our calling. As we prepare for Christmas, the challenge I set forth is this: Let’s celebrate and feast well. Let’s enjoy friends and family. But let’s make sure there’s room in our hearts for Christ, room in our hearts for refugees.

Let’s understand that what we celebrate from 2,000 years ago is still very much alive and taking place today. It should be both an honor and a profoundly humbling challenge for Medical Teams International to say, “This is what we do.” We find people like Mary and restore wholeness and health in a hurting world.