When I was in Germany helping out with the refugee crisis, I was asked by a Pastor: “How should we celebrate Christmas with Muslim refugees this year so that we can accommodate Islamic faith and continue the German welcome spirit? Should we continue celebrating Christmas as we normally do? Should we decorate the Christmas tree or put as little or no decorations on the tree?” His primary concern was that he and his perish did not want to offend Muslim refugees, who visited their church on regular basis either by attending social hours or language classes.
While religion is not the primary concern for many refugees, these questions are a reflection of challenges many ordinary Germans face every day as they work closely with refugees. While Germans strive to maintain the “Willkommenskultur”, integration of refugees continues to be one of the greatest challenges they face.
Now, here are seven simple ways you can celebrate Christmas with “Muslim refugees” and use them as tools for personal interaction, building relationships, and learning from one another. These could be used as great tools for integration of refugees into the German society:
- Decorate for Christmas together – Invite refugees to decorate the Christmas tree with you either at your local church, organization or your home. You can do this in three ways: a) put out already prepared tree decorations and decorate together; or b) invite them to go buy some decorations with you and let them select colours and decorations they may like; or c) make handmade decorations together – put out some supplies and make tree decorations together; let them use their creativity. This could be a great venue for healing of broken emotions; feelings of loss, grief, and missing loved ones.
- Bake Christmas cookies together – Invite refugee women (and children) to bake Christmas cookies with you. Teach them how to bake traditional German Christmas cookies, and ask them if there is a particular holiday cookie they baked in their country that they would like to bake with you and share the recipe with you. Being in a position of teaching another person and sharing knowledge is powerful – it adds to one’s confidence and self-worth – something these refugees desperately need.
- Bring kids together – Christmas is about the birth of a child. Bring German and refugee children and youth together to make Christmas decorations, do some painting or art work, or play Christmas carols, or play some games together. Casual and friendly interaction help minimize bias toward one another—even a hidden or unknown bias either on part of Germans or refugees themselves.
- Do a Christmas “On the Go” – Give away small (table top) Christmas trees and Christmas decorations to refugees to take home with them and decorate their refugee camps, or their living areas, or their flats.
- Involve them in Christmas plays – Share with refugees the Biblical story of Jesus’s birth and ask them to share with you the Quranic story. To overcome language barriers, tell the Biblical story in a play and engage refugees in the skit. Most people love stories, especially Middle Easterners! Ask them if they want to participate and be part of the play and dress like one of the figures — either Mary or Joseph, or dress as a shepherd, or be one of the wise men, or even dress as a sheep. Add some humour to the play. Humour is healing! Or, you can ask the refugees to create a play of the Quranic story of Jesus’s birth, and Germans and non-participating refugees be the audience. Again, exercising one’s creativity and engaging them in a national holiday is empowering for the refugees. This could make them feel that they are part of the German society and help the integration process to go faster and much smoother.
- Invite refugees to your home for Christmas – Sharing meals and eating a meal together is very important to Muslims. They love family gatherings and celebrations. Invite them to your home and share a Christmas meal with them and show them how German families engage with one another, break bread together, and open Christmas presents. Put a little Christmas present for your refugee guest under the tree. You can also do this at your church or a hall and invite all the refugees to a Christmas celebration, but personal visits have greater impacts. They help build personal relationships, which lead to faster integration.
- Visit refugees at their homes or refugee camps – Going to homes of relatives and friends after a major holiday to wish them well and bringing them a small gift is a Middle Eastern tradition. If possible, go visit refugees either in their camps or homes, and bring them a small gift. Remember, hospitality is important in Islam, or Middle Eastern, or Arab culture. Eat what they serve you and ask questions about their food and traditions.
While these are great tools for interactions, building relationships, and integration of Muslims into German society, language barriers remain to be a challenge. Most refugees do not speak English which adds to the complexity of bringing Germans and refugees together. You will have to become creative and find ways to have at least one individual who either speaks English or shares a common language. Carry small Arabic-German dictionaries with you and use the dictionary to communicate with one another. It will in fact, make a great learning experience and add some fun to your visit! However, language barriers should not stop you from celebrating Christmas with one another. Remember, love is a universal language and almost everyone understands it.
Dr. Yvette Hovsepian Bearce with an Iraqi refugee girl while volunteering in the German language course in Schalksmühle. She and her mother are the first refugees Yvette met and welcomed in Germany in September 2015.
Originally posted by MPC Journal. Post can be found here.