Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”….When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
Matthew 2:13, 16
Recently, my son Elijah has become obsessed with the book When Stars Are Scattered. It’s a graphic novel designed for kids. Elijah’s aunt sent it to him this past summer. Honestly, I didn’t know anything about the content of the book until recently when I saw him carrying the book everywhere. He would literally bring it to the dinner table. Whenever we would enforce a screen break and require reading time, When Stars Are Scattered is the book he would pick up.
Eventually, I became curious about the content. I figured it was just another fictional children’s story. Boy was I wrong. The story follows the life of a young boy named Omar and his younger, autistic brother, Hassan as they navigate life in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. If you were here for my series Modern Parables, one of the stories in that series focused on the Dadaab Camp.
The story is not only compelling, but it is true. Omar and Hassan were forced to flee their village on foot due to the Somalian Civil War. Separated from their mother, these two little boys managed to walk hundreds of miles towards Kenya by themselves. Upon arriving at the Dadaab refugee camp, they were registered with the UNHCR (United Nations High Council for Refugees) and given a tent in which to live.
The Dadaab camp was only supposed to be a temporary refuge until the Somalian Civil War came to an end. Unfortunately, the war raged on for years, preventing the people in the camp from being able to return to their homes. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people eventually came to occupy the camp. When Stars Are Scattered not only provides vivid imagery of what life is like in the camps, but also follows Omar and Hassan from childhood into their late teenage years, detailing how they managed to survive in the camp where food is scarce and the future is bleak.
I eventually asked Elijah if I could read the book with him. I was immediately mesmerized by the story. The writing is beautiful and the content is harrowingly difficult to digest. These are people who live some of the hardest lives of anyone in the entire world and here my son was reading this book over and over again.
Initially, I wondered why he felt so drawn to the material, but then I realized—he cares about these people. He feels empathy and compassion for their plight. He reads their story because he wants the best for Omar and Hassan. He wants a better life for all these people. This book is a window into a world that is so dramatically different from his own. However, rather than simply read the material and move on, he wants to put himself in their shoes. He wants to feel what they feel and truly understand their plight.
The fact that Elijah is reading this during Advent really struck me because the story of Jesus is one of a refugee who is fleeing persecution. After Jesus’ birth, Herod attempts to rid himself of any competitors to the throne by having all the baby boys killed in and around Bethlehem. So often we simply read this part of the story and skip past it. We think, “Whew! I’m glad Jesus survived.” We don’t like to dwell on the negatives for too long.
However, I think we need to take a moment and really put ourselves in the shoes of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. We need to consider and contemplate how scary it would have been to relocate to a foreign land where you know nobody and try to make a go of it. We need to do what Elijah is doing with When Stars Are Scattered and really try to appreciate what it’s like to live in another person’s shoes.
Only when we take the time to really see life from another perspective are we able to appreciate the blessings that God has bestowed upon us and how important it is that we give back from those blessings. We’ve spoken with Elijah about the possibility of visiting the Dadaab camp in a couple of years so that he can see for himself what the camp is like. We want him to have the opportunity to get to know some of the people who live in the camp and experience life through their eyes.
Therefore, although we are all feeling stressed and upset that the pandemic is preventing us from experiencing Christmas in the ways we’ve always known, perhaps this year we can experience Christmas in a new way. Perhaps this year we can not only give thanks for what we have, but truly come to understand what other people don’t have. Perhaps this year how God is calling us to make the world a better place for people like Omar and Hassan who are praying for us to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world.