Anyone who has ever put together a shoebox full of Christmas cheer for a child in another country has probably experienced a moment of feeling unsure.
Are stationary supplies or crayons abundant ‘over there,’ and not necessary to include?
Would the child like this kind of toy for Christmas?
Does this shoebox contain a lot of “ho, ho, ho?” Or is it more “ho hum?”
You can take it from a woman from Maple Ridge who spent a decade in a refugee camp – shoe boxes from Samaritan’s Purse are an awesome gift for the kids who get them. They are delivered through Operation Christmas Child.
Lara Lee, who many will know as the gregarious manager of the Ridge Meadows Hospice Society Thrift Store, spent most of her childhood living as a refugee in the Middle East.
Her family took refuge in a tent city in the Syrian desert, facing scorching temperatures, rampant disease and violent crime.
“It was just a camp, it’s desert and it’s hot. You throw egg on the ground and it would fry,” she said.
The UN and aid agencies offered food and clothes, but there wasn’t much else for the camp residents.
Lee can remember when the shoeboxes would arrive during the years when she was in the camp.
Presented with this gift, she would be thinking: “Please, be pen and paper.”
She explains she only had Grade 1 before being uprooted from her life, and was worried about missing out on an education.
“I loved school. I would go sit behind our tent and pretend I was in school.”
What would she do? Math?
“I would draw – mountains, sheep, birds… my mom loves doves. Not so much math,” answered Lee.
“I would come home and say, ‘I did homework, Mom.’
“It was just imaginary, but that pen and paper gave me some hope that I would be in school.”
The box would also have things like dolls and stuffed toys. If she didn’t like something, she could easily trade it to another kid.
Her sister was more sporty, and would be happy with a ball, or skipping rope.
They weren’t disappointed that it wasn’t a Super Nintendo. Most of them didn’t know what that was.
“We were just happy to get something,” she said. “That’s the world we knew.”
Lee’s family is of Kurdish descent, and while she was born in Iraq, she generally refers to herself as simply Middle Eastern.
The family was living in Erbil, Iraq in 1991, when uprisings gripped the country. The first Gulf War had come to a close, but in the period of unrest afterward, tens of thousands were killed, and an estimated two million refugees fled Iraq – about 1.5 million of them Kurds.
She remembers when her city was attacked by Iraqi government forces.
“You could hear the chains of the tanks, they shook the ground. That’s what woke us up.”
They fled in a pickup truck, part of a river of civilian refugees trying to get to safety.
“The roads got so congested with cars, everyone stopped their cars and got out, and were running.”
Historic accounts talk about how Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard helicopters deliberately fired on columns of fleeing civilians. Lara lived through that experience as a five-year-old.
She remembers her grandfather holding her hand, and trying to get the children moving. She saw people hit by gunfire, killed and wounded. To this day, sometimes the smell of a fire will bring her back to “that chaos, the smell of the bombs.”
The U.S. Department of State estimated that 1,000 fleeing refugees were killed every day during that conflict, but fortunately her family got safely to a refugee camp in Syria.
They thought their situation would be temporary. But when they returned to Erbil, with promises they could resume their old life, they found their home was destroyed. Her father was a newspaper editor, and the building had been bombed.
They went back to the camp. The family tried briefly to leave, her dad taking a job at a restaurant, being paid under the table in Syria. They had a one-room, mud house “that we thought was the best thing.” But leaving the camp was risky, because now they were then in the country illegally. Without citizenship or proper papers, they could not go to school, and couldn’t even get medical attention at a hospital.
When other countries agreed to take the refugees from the Iraqi conflict, they got back to the refugee camp and applied.
They would check a list of families at the camp office, to see whether they were accepted. Lee would look for her family name, Amin. She would hope to see that they have been approved each day, only to find that their applications were rejected by the U.S. and then by Australia. It was a terrible feeling.
“That process would just kill you. There were days you would think ‘I’m never going to get out of here.’
Finally, they learned they had been accepted by Canada. The kids had no information about their new home, but in January 2000 they arrived in Montreal.
“That was our first time to see snow. That was a shock.”
The first time she went to school was Grade 9 at Burnaby South. Lee spoke Persian, Arabic and Kurdish fluently, but no English. She threw herself into school and learning her new language.
“I was so hungry, and wanted to surround myself with English people.
Lee has a happy life, married to husband Kevin and with a little three-year-old daughter Sura-Rose.
Times when she feels that life is unfair, she thinks about where she came from.
“There were people who walked into that camp who didn’t walk out, so you can’t feel bad for yourself.”
And she wants to give back.
She will be shepherding 50 shoeboxes this year, many of them put together by her family members and friends.
And she is getting more involved than that. This year she spoke to volunteers with Operation Christmas Child, and has been invited to travel to the Calgary headquarters to share her story with the people at the main shipping and receiving centre for Canada.
“I’m excited, but nervous at the same time,” she said.
She wants to tell those dedicated volunteers what those boxes mean.
“The children do get it, and they do appreciate it, and it does stay with them,” she said.
“I want to share with them that it’s amazing what they’re doing. They decide to fill a box, not knowing where it’s going and the impact it will have on that child’s life.”
It meant a lot to her, that someone out there was thinking of her, and wanted her to have a good life.
“It wasn’t just a box of toys, pens and papers, it was a box of hope, that hope is out there, and hope is coming.”
Next year, when she does the shoe boxes, she hopes to leave a short note to the children about her experiences in each one.
“I will write a simple letter to give them hope, that it will get better.”