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Away in a Manger:  The UN Sends a Christmas Message to the Displaced, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Dec

It’s Christmas Eve morning and on a table near my computer is a dusty wooden crèche, a replicated space apparently large enough to hold a holy family, a couple of onlookers, a barn animal or two and some early-arriving dignitaries.  The crèche is guarded by a host of other creatures courtesy of my many trips abroad – a camel, a hippo and a variety of cats – lots of cats.  Atop the crèche is a cross tied together with palms from the previous Lenten Season – a reminder of where this particular birth, indeed all of our births are ultimately headed.

In part because we are so desperate for vindication of our optimisms, we have somehow managed to sentimentalize the manger event.  Oh sure it must have been cold.   And it really isn’t anyone’s fault that there was no room at the Inn.  And the travel to Bethlehem couldn’t have been THAT treacherous.  And the manger doesn’t appear to be THAT uncomfortable.

On an on it goes, trivializing the scene, apply the “Hollywood gloss” to the lives of persons who were in essence displaced.   Persons with few tangible assets.   Riding a donkey across treacherous pathways while coping with the uncertainties of an immanent birth event.   Fleeing violence and rumors of violence for a mostly uncertain future. Showing up at an Inn with a keeper who might well have had every reason to believe that a cleaner, higher class of folks would soon arrive to purchase what were probable (still) empty beds, folks ready to eat and drink without bringing with them the drama and danger that so often accompanied birth in those times.

The manger is not a film set, nor should it constitute an occasion to celebrate the holy baby while ignoring the unholy circumstances.  This was hard, harder than most everyone who will bother to read this missive will have ever experienced in their lives.

There are millions of people this very day who also find themselves on the treacherous move – fleeing conflict they had no role in starting, walking many miles without being able to quench their thirst or reassure their children, bearing the load of the most essential provisions while, in some instances, carrying within them the multiple “weights” of a new life.

For some, the actual manger from this Christmas season would be a relief:  a donkey to ride when feet are weary, some hay to provide minimal comfort while waiting along hostile borders, the hope that the same Innkeeper who provided the manger space might also show some mercy and provide nourishment for the new mother.

For many of the millions of displaced who are today on the move, such mercy is hard to come by.  Despite the misery of their often torturous journeys, they encounter closed and closely guarded borders, hostile governments and their electorates, and sometimes very cold hearts.

Too many of us nowadays wouldn’t let the displaced get close enough to knock on our doors let alone to direct them to a relatively comfortable and safe landing.

For all its warts, the UN is taking the needs of the displaced seriously.   The UN has not always done enough to stop the bombing or alleviate the poverty and drought that drive so much global displacement, but neither has it minimized the immense physical suffering and psychological trauma that displacement occasions.  In resolution after resolution, the UN has urgently highlighted the multiple burdens of displacement – from physical deprivation and hostile countries of destination to increased vulnerabilities to criminal elements, including and especially from traffickers.

One example of this concern was this week in a (much too small) UN conference room within which the UN Office for Drugs and Crimes’ 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons was launched.  The event was sponsored by France and included UNODC’s director Yuri Fedotov and the Yazidi activist Nadia Murad.  It also included many states affirming commitments made in aforementioned resolutions and through the New York Declaration, a seminal document that outlines challenges and obligations towards the displaced by both states and diverse, additional stakeholders.

There were many insights from this event, one of which is that states are being more thoughtful about the particular vulnerabilities of displaced persons, especially to traffickers — those soliciting victims for forced prostitution, for child labor, even for child soldiers.  It was Mexico that most clearly acknowledged the preponderance of “push and pull” factors that promote displacement noting that, for all the attention that the displaced now rightly receive, both raw numbers and vulnerabilities continue to rise.  Such discouraging data, as noted by UNODC director Fedotov, must inspire us to more thoughtful, comprehensive commitments to the victims of displacement, including as noted by Iraq, commitments to help those seeking to return to their homes to do so.

One of the longer-term lessons of Christmas for me has been that in settings such as the manger-turned–delivery-room — settings of uncertainty and discomfort, settings of weariness and fear — a child can be born bearing the capacity to literally change the world.

On this Christmas, along many militarized borders, in many makeshift refugee camps, on many cramped crafts that are anything but sea-worthy, there are children about to leave the womb, children who also bear the capacity to make change and bring hope in our world.  Given the violent, melting state of our planet and the unbridled confusion and anger of so many of its current inhabitants, we would be foolish and grossly negligent to do anything other than welcome and nurture their promise.