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By Father Andrzej Dzida, SVD
Christmas hymns can be heard throughout the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda. Youth and children, who make up more than 60 percent of the population, have begun to prepare songs and dances for the holiday. They may not be a choir of angels, but we enjoy their heavenly voices when they sing the Gloria and other songs in harmony.
With the help of Pontifical Mission Societies, children in the camp form a performance group called Holy Childhood. Last year, they prepared scenes from the birth of Jesus and the life of the Holy Family. The funniest scene was presented in the chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul, where the Nuer clan children imitated a braying, running donkey. These Nativity plays allow refugees to temporarily forget the trauma of war; everyday problems, such as food insecurity, lack of education and joblessness; and illnesses, such as typhus and malaria.
When these families lived in South Sudan, they prepared special foods for the season. They sacrificed and saved all year to be able to afford goat meat for their holiday meal. To decorate homes and churches, women and girls sewed Christmas stars filled with leftover scraps of clothing, and they baked gingerbread-style dough.
Unfortunately, most of the refugees do not have these luxuries in the Bidi Bidi camp. And yet, there are signs of Christ’s love. Recently, one family baked bread that they shared with others, and our children’s choir reminds us that Christmas is coming.
During last year’s Christmas Eve celebration in the Chapel of Our Lady in Swinga, one of five zones in the camp, we traveled through solemn procession to the altar. We did not have a Christ Child figurine, but mothers who brought their babies for baptism reminded us of His presence. We rejoiced as the newly baptized babies joined Jesus as new children of God.
There was no snow, Christmas trees or special gifts, but we felt closer to the actual birth of Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem. We used banana leaves from Sudan to reflect the mood of the day. Each of us, like the shepherd children and the Three Kings, brought the gift of self. On this day, the most important gift was openness of heart and readiness to forgive the scars of war and family wounds.
The smiles of mothers and children made for a beautiful moment. Many children attended that day. About 500 little ones filled the chapel, making the distribution of candies and cookies a joyful event. Even though we had a two-sweets-per-person limit, the children were grateful.
On New Year’s Day, in the Chapel of Our Lady of Theotokos in Kado in the Abirimajo zone, we shared the joy with others. On that day, the children who came with their little sisters and brothers were especially noticed. One boy stared at Jesus on the cross for a long time. As I watched him, I wondered what he saw and what Jesus wants to tell us today in his suffering from the Cross.
Perhaps in Jesus’s suffering and the needs of refugees in Bidi Bidi, Our Lord reminds us, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me…. Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (cf. Mt 25, 34-40).
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