In order to give people outside Chios the possibility to understand how it is to be in a refugee camp on the island, A Drop in the Ocean will present an alternative Christmas calendar this year. Each day until Christmas, we will post 24 amazing stories about the people we are so blessed to spend our everyday with.
December 24th – Christine
Written by Christine Simon and Jeppe Mariager-Lam. Photo: Filippo Tommasoli.
Christine’s grandparents were named Shaheen Simon and Mary Fatima Khoury, both from Lebanon. In 1898 they fled from their home in Beirut, Lebanon, because the Shiite Muslims in Lebanon were beheading Maronite Catholics. “My grandfather told us that he and my grandmother and several friends from their church left their homes in the ‘middle of the night’ and purchased tickets on a ship headed from Beirut to France” she tells. They had to pose as Muslims to board the ship, and quickly after they arrived in France, they were on the next ship bound for New York. However, just as with so many of the current refugees on Chios, the crossing did not go as planned – After they departed from France, they found out that one of their friends was missing, and with no option back then to communicate, and furthermore with no idea where their friend, Najeeb Dwail, might be, they feared for the worst, and they continued to fear for years while they settled in to their new life in the US.
As it turned out, Najeeb Dwail took the wrong ship from France and ended up in Australia, where it took him 2 years to learn enough English to understand that he was not in the country that he thought – He was in fact not even in the same part of the world! He later made it to New York and managed to find Christine’s grandparents, coming back from worst case scenarios that had played out in their minds, and finally they were together to continue their new life in “the land of the free”.
Christine’s grandfather found a job in a factory there, and together with his wife, they set off to bring the same safety and security to their friends who were still facing extreme conditions in Beirut. Through their efforts, they managed to help at least 150 people get a new start in New York, encouraging them to make the crossing, giving them shelter and food on arrival, and helping them on their feet. Their home was in many ways a mini version of the Souda Refugee Camp on Chios, except they actually had reliable electricity and warm water (something that, 120 years later, still doesn’t work properly in Souda). “On top of this, they also had my grandmothers fabulous cooking”, says Christine with a smile while sharing this story about a couple that clearly has shaped her into the wonderful person she is today.
Christine continues to say that her father, Milead Shaheen, has told her stories about how he as a child and teenager remembers having dozens of people sleeping on the floor and any other available space. There was always lots of laughter in the Simon’s living room, especially after everyone joined in to smoking Hookah and indulging in the hearty food prepared by a women’s whose chief complaint about America was that the homes did not have an outdoor brick oven that she could use to bake pita breads in on a daily basis. Luckily this changed later though, as the family found a mason to construct them a brick oven, which was the icing on the cake for this improvised Welcome Centre for fellow refugees and new friends alike to talk about everything from small paperwork quirks in the US, to gruesome tales of what happened in Lebanon.
“My father said that this experience of watching his parents helping others was the most vivid memory of his childhood” says Christine, who only after her father’s death found out that he in all modesty and often anonymously had been helping people in need whenever he could – She heard story after story of gratitude from people who had been in a difficult spot, when her father had giving them money or food.
Very much influenced by her father, and his parents before him, Christine is the same – She has decided that she will spend her Christmas holidays away from home, giving out food and spreading good vibes to the people in Souda. For Christine, just like for many other of the amazing volunteers who have chosen to stay on Chios today and tomorrow instead of being with their families, Christmas is truly about giving this year, and while these efforts from A Drop in the Ocean and all the other organisations are clearly appreciated by the refugees, their biggest wish is something that is out of our control to give; Peace, Security, or even just progress in their cases after months or years waiting for the same opportunity to start over that Christine’s grandparents got all those years ago when they stepped on board the ship to France.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from all of us volunteering for A Drop in the Ocean on Chios – We hope you have enjoyed the 24 short stories that we have brought to you this December. Spread the love and continue to give, both at home and abroad.