The first thing I see when I open the door is a pair of gleaming blue eyes, the exact shade of vibrant azure that one comes across off the coast of Latakia in Syria. When I mention this to Yousef, to whom these most remarkable eyes belong, his weather beaten face creases into an immense smile, so vast that it threatens to engulf my entire field of vision.
Despite my invitation to come inside, Yousef remains standing, gazing at the wreath that festoons our front door. At my urging, he reluctantly enters. “I love Christmas decorations,” he exclaims. “I can’t get enough of them.”
“Well this is your lucky day,” I answer, for I too share his love, as do all the members of my family.
Indeed, Myer has nothing on the homes of the clan collective, each room of which is festooned with Father Christmases, Elves and Australian Summer resistant plastic garlands, a resistance not so necessary any longer in moist Melbourne.
Yousef gazes at our Christmas tree and touches the branches lovingly. “Beautiful,” he exclaims with the eye of a true connoisseur, “just beautiful. And then, glancing at our large nativity set adjacent to the tree which is replete with camels and other animals that create the requisite barnyard atmosphere, he suddenly dropped to his knees and prostrated himself before it.
“Forgive me,” he whispered, tears in his eyes, as he eventually stood up. “To see the Christ-child here, in a happy home, that is what every child deserves.”
Yousef sits down and I make Syrian tea. He has only been in this country for a few years, arriving during the final years of ISIS’ reign of terror in his homeland.
Like me, he is an Orthodox Christian and he asks me whether the Greeks in Australia follow the old calendar, like the ones in Jerusalem, or the new. When I attempt to debate the pros and cons of the calendar debate, he moves to silence me.
“It is a great shame that Christians cannot all come together on such an important day to celebrate the birth of the Saviour and have to do so on separate days. Where we come from, we do not have the luxury of arguing over abstruse points of doctrine or arcane tradition. Where we come from, to be a Christian is to shed blood.”
He sips his tea in the traditional way, sugar cube clenched between his teeth, to allow the teeth to permeate its sweetness. I on the other hand set mine aside.
“What are you doing?” he asks, bewildered. “I wait until it is cold and then I swing it down in one hit,” I respond and he gives me the piteous look that the civilised give to the uncouth, when seeking to teach them deportment.
Yousef looks around the room and his eyes rest upon a toy Father Christmas driving a bus which I have recently purchased for my son. I conclude that he suspects that I derive more delight from the contraption than my offspring and am about to launch into a lengthy exculpatory exposition when he interjects:
“It was on a bus that I escaped the hell of ISIS. For years we were too frightened to put up a Christmas tree. I managed to get my family out before they came to our town and they eventually reached Beirut in safety, but I remained behind.
"When they arrived they got us altogether immediately because our friends and neighbours told them who the Christians were.
"They lost no time in informing us of the rules: no one was allowed to renovate the churches or monasteries in the town, no one was allowed to display crosses or religious symbols in public or use loudspeakers in prayer, no one could read from the Bible loud enough for Muslims standing outside to hear; no one could carry out any religious ceremonies outside the church; and of course we were required to pay the jizya tax worth four golden dinars for the rich, two for those of a middle income, and one for the poor, twice annually, for each adult Christian.
"The first Christmas, a friend of mine was found lugging a small pine tree to his home. When he was stopped, he claimed he was doing nothing. Then he admitted it was a Christmas tree. They pulled him to the side of the road and forced him on his knees.
"All the time he was pleading with them, telling them he wasn’t doing anything wrong as his display was not public and was only intended to make his children happy.
"He was killed on the spot and his body just left to lie on the kerb. Soon after they started entering our houses looking for Christmas trees….”
Yousef takes a long sigh and places another sugar cube in his mouth.
“No amount of sugar can add sweetness to what I am going to say,” he sobs.
It is the second Christmas under the yoke of the oppressor. Yousef’s church has been desecrated and looted. ISIS fighters have removed the crucifixes and icons from the church and have smashed them on the ground outside. They have taken the priests’ vestments and paraded around in them, mimicking Christian worship derisively.
As Yousef speaks, I shudder, for what he is recounting are the same experiences recalled by my own people in Asia Minor, one hundred years previously.
Ultimately, explosives are placed in the church and detonated. The structure that acted as a symbol of his identity, focused all his hopes and aspirations now lies in ruins. It is at this point that Yousef decided he could take it no longer. He had to leave.
“I purchased a bus ticket with my friend Elias and left on Christmas Eve. This was a risky endeavour because our lives meant nothing to those people but we could not take it any longer. If there is any meaning in our Saviour’s birth and sacrifice, we thought, then let us be guided back to our families.
"We passed twelve ISIS checkpoints. All along the way, we witnessed scenes of devastation. Rubble, destroyed schools and churches.
"Driving towards one village, I saw what appeared to be an array of scarecrows on the side of the row and I wondered what they were doing there. As we sped past however, I realised I was mistaken. They had taken the Christians of that village and had crucified them on the side of the road.
"We went through the checkpoints one by one and each time we did, our hearts would leap out of our chests. Fighters would board the bus, check our identity papers and then wave us through.
"But through the window, I could see that they were pulling passengers from the other buses parked near us and taking them away.
"At one check point, a fighter, foreign looking, boarded the bus brandishing a sword. He checked the identification documents of each and every passenger.
"Discovering some of them were Christians, he would haul them off the bus. I was seated right at the back and my friend Elias was seated in front of me. When he ordered Elias off the bus, Elias resisted, stating that he wanted to get his bags.
“Move, you won’t need them,” came the reply in broken Arabic.
"The fighter looked at me in the eyes and I froze. But inexplicably, he did not ask me for my identification. Instead, he turned around, got off the bus and waved us through. From the window, as the bus pulled away, I saw him raise his sword and cut off the head of my friend Elias.
"I have lived the guilt of that moment ever since. How was I spared and he condemned? Why do my children get to live with their father, while Elias’ remain orphans? Since arriving in this country, I have sought the help of psychologists yet I cannot still come to terms with this.”
Rummaging through the shopping bags Yousef removes toy after toy, ignoring my protestations that it is too much, that my children already have enough toys, that he is new in this country and should spend the money on himself and his family.
“Please, accept these,” he says quietly and as I continue to protest, he grasps my arm tightly: “If not for me, then for Elias," he said.
I offer to acquire a grandiose Christmas tree for his home by way of recompense but he declines gently. “As much as I love them, I cannot bear to have a tree at home any longer. So do me a favour. Never forget to set up the Christmas tree. Do it for all of those who died not being able to do so. And for those who live and can no longer do so. Do it for me”
His lips grimacing in the forced attempt at a smile, he wishes me a Merry Christmas, bounds down the steps of the front door, and is away.
Dean Kalimniou is a lawyer, author and heavily involved in the Greek-Australian community.
READ MORE: How the Greek Orthodox of Syria celebrated Christmas (PHOTOS)