Uprooted from a familiar environment and their own homes, refugees experience the pain of alienation and hopelessness.
A refugee camp in the Middle East.
The Virgin’s Tree of Matarieh
The tiny Egyptian village of Matarieh stands but a few miles from the outskirts of Cairo. When Matarieh first meets the eye, it looks little different from the thousands of other villages that dot the Nile Valley and Delta. One is conscious of the heat, the dust, the incessant braying of Egypts omnipresent donkeys. But Matarieh has something it does not share with its sister villages a particularly hallowed spot shaded by an ancient tree. To this day, the Christians of Egypt call it the Virgins Tree.
Tradition has it that it was this spot where the Holy Family stopped to rest during the Flight Into Egypt. How well-founded the tradition is, of course, is problematical. Nevertheless, it exists and has existed for centuries, far back into the first and second century Coptic Christianity. In its own way, it is a testament to the faith of the Christians of Egypt. It is also a link to the historic events of the New Testament, for ancient and venerable traditions do not spring out of nowhere.
The Gospel story of the Holy Familys flight, which we have become accustomed to hearing at this time of year, is one of characteristic simplicity. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him. So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I called my son out of Egypt (Matt: 2:13-15).
We of the modern world have come to know enough of the plight of refugee populations to be able to put flesh on the bare bones of the Gospel story. Obviously, there was an uprooting, in which the Holy Family was forced out of fear of the dominant political power to leave its homeland and to seek refuge in alien surroundings. Joseph, we know, was poor, and must have been tormented by the problem of how he would support Mother and Child in an unfamiliar land. There was, no doubt, a Jewish community in Egypt. But Egypt was not home. Would he find lodging? How would they eat? How long would they be torn apart from their roots? The inability to answer these questions is perhaps the most agonizing torment of the refugee. To this day in the Middle East, ones home, ones land, ones birthright are cherished as intensely as life itself.
Time and again down through the centuries, human beings have been uprooted for political or other reasons. And, if it is true that the Christ Child assumed the human condition so that his life would be relevant to the lives of all men, then we can dare to say that he willingly became a refugee that he might speak to the millions who have followed in such footsteps including those in the Middle East today.
Dbayeh, Jisr el-Bacha, Rashidiyeh, Jerash, Beqas are no doubt meaningless syllables to Western ears. Yet, in the Middle East, these are words that are full of significance, for they symbolize yet another forced exodus, this time of a million and a half human beings. They are the names of some of the various camps that, for a quarter of a century, have sheltered at one time or another these masses of people. They represent flights from Palestine into Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and, again, into Egypt. They recall the poverty, the despair and the uncertainties of the Holy Family during its own enforced exile. And, while it is true that many of todays refugees have, by their own initiative, been able to break loose from the camps to make their own way in other parts of the Arab world, all find still elusive that most cherished objective of all the return.
Meanwhile, the camps are now crowded with the old whom history has perhaps irretrievably passed by and the very young who are beginning their lives in the thin hope that history may yet be kinder to them.
Thus, the Virgins Tree at Matarieh is not some relic out of a dim and distant past that is kept alive solely in the devotion of Egypts Christians. That tableau of a perhaps bewildered Mother and Child seated beneath the protective branches of a tree is reflected in the young Arab mother gathering her children at the so-called beach camp of Deir el-Balah in the Gaza Strip for the daily rations that consist of the bare nutritional essentials. It is reflected in the face of the Arab mother who brings her dehydrated infant to one of the various health centers set up in the camps. In a way, too, it is reflected in the vocational training schools set up by voluntary agencies such as the Pontifical Mission for Palestine through Catholic Near East Welfare Association, for the education of the exiled Palestinian youth. The Virgins Tree symbolizes deprivation, and deprivation is what Palestinian refugee camps are all about.
Vincent S. Kearney, S.J. is an Associate Editor of AMERICA and has written extensively on the Middle East.