One Christmas twenty-two years ago, my family experienced a Christmas miracle. At the time, my family, including my mom, my older sister, Amy, and I were living in a refugee camp on Galang Island in Indonesia. Scarcity was a daily experience for us during those four years. We wore ragged clothes that often had to be sewn over and over again so holes wouldn’t show the skin of our bums. Every morning we woke up, often we didn’t know whether we would have enough food to fill our stomachs on that day
Every now and then, Amy would come home crying to us. “Why are you crying?” my mom would ask. Amy would reply “I saw our neighbours eating such good food and I really crave to have what they had.” My mom would feel very helpless as a parent, knowing that her daughter craved for some good food, which she couldn’t afford to get. My mom didn’t know what else to do other than comforting and empathizing with Amy.
However, occasionally my mom would feel angry that Amy would have cravings during times of scarcity. She recalled back in Vietnam, my mom and my dad would often fight over how little my sister ate. Amy often bought snacks to eat throughout the day and when meal times came, she would refuse to eat. And so my parents would complain and blame each other for giving Amy money to buy snacks.
In truth, the root of my mom’s anger was simply a feeling of helplessness. As my mom explained to us at the time “It hurts me to know you have cravings which I can’t satisfy for you.” When we were in Vietnam, whatever we craved for, my parents would try their best to get it for us. Now she couldn’t do that anymore.
One Christmas Eve, the three of us went to the evening mass. We were feeling spiritual and grateful because of our faith in God. Yet we couldn’t help feeling sad. Our meal earlier during lunch was very simple – Pre-packaged noodles with some vegetables.
As I was singing happily during mass, I noticed the churning in my stomach because we hadn’t eaten dinner yet. I tried to ignore the feeling and kept it private inside. In fact, I rarely talked about my feeling or shared it with anyone. I started to be very annoyed by my stomach’s lack of cooperation.
The truth was, there wasn’t much to have for dinner anyway. We planned to go home after mass and eat fried rice with salt. Actually that was one of the tricks for us – eating fried rice and drinking water. Somehow we would feel quite full. Mom explained, “the water would expand the fried rice in your stomach, making you feel full.” Even that morning, we didn’t think we could make fried rice to have later on because we ran out of salt. However we managed to sell a cup of rice in order to buy a handful of salt and a clove of garlic to make the fried rice smell good.
On our way home from church, the smell of some good food here and there filled up our nostrils. My stomach continued to churn and growl in a very persistent way, letting me know that it was long passed the time to eat. It was 7:30 in the evening by then.
I was anxious to get home to eat the fried rice. Our place was a small little house that my mom had bought a year before using the money that my dad sent over from Vietnam, As we approached our house, our hearts sank. We noticed that the window of our house was popped open. The window in our house could be opened using a big stick to support it. We feared that someone had broken into our place, stealing our things. Although we didn’t have anything valuable, we nevertheless would really suffer if some of our things were stolen.
As we entered the house, the smell of good food started to fill my nostrils. My mom and Amy’s eyes became widened as they saw our table was filled with food. Amy exclaimed, “Yea, food!” as she jumped up and down, clapping her hands. I got very excited too. “Really?” I said enthusiastically, half not believing. I was afraid Amy was teasing me.
On the table, there was white rice, which we never got a chance to eat in the refugee camp up until then. There was also some chicken and vegetables. Honestly I don’t remember exactly what was on the table. However I can still remember vividly the emotions at that moment. We were completely taken by surprise. The food tasted amazing as we took each bite. As I started to gulp down the food, my mom said, “Let’s say grace first.” “Eat slowly so you can enjoy the food.” We felt a deep sense of gratitude. As my mom often reminded us during our time living in the refugee camp, “A piece during times of famine is worth a package during times of abundance.” At that moment, it really hit me how true that saying was. For twenty-two years later, as I write this, I am still feeling the gratitude and the love that I felt at that time. We later found out that it was our neighbour next door who pried our window open and brought us the food as a Christmas treat.
During those four years living in that camp, it was these moments of gratitude, moments of kindness and moments of sharing that really got us through. We saw those moments as miracles. We never stopped believing in miracles, because that was what kept us hoping and not becoming hopeless.
As I now work as a Stopping the Violence Counsellor, everyday I work with single mothers who have left or are trying to leave abusive partners or husbands. More often than not, they really struggle with taking care of their children relying on one income. Because their ex-husbands or ex-partners were abusive, often those men would find ways to avoid paying child or spousal support. Working with these women I am often reminded of how my mom was fending for us during the four years in the refugee camp.
As a counsellor, my primary role is to provide these women with emotional support. I work to empower them by building up their self-confidence, fostering compassion towards themselves, and gaining insights into their past choices and behaviours. Yet I am often aware of the important of practical and day-to-day support. To become stronger and more empowered, a person needs both emotional support in the forms of encouragement, compassion and acceptance, as well as instrumental support such as financial help, clothing and the necessities of life.
In the last few weeks, I have been trying to connect these women with an organization that gives brand-new clothes and shoes to their children. Every time I handed the clothes and shoes to these women, I felt very happy and grateful that I could do such a small and simple thing for them. When I witnessed how their children got excited to see brand-new shoes or clothes, I got excited for them too!
During this Christmas season, ask yourself “Is there anything I can do for someone, even a small simple thing?” Often during the holiday season, we are distracted by so many things – buying expensive gifts, receiving gifts, hosting parties and so forth. And yet Christmas season can be a very lonely time for those who are vulnerable, such as elders, those with disabilities and families with low incomes. I was very aware of the loneliness that holiday season could symbolize for many when I worked as a grief counsellor with older folks who lost their spouses. Christmas season can also be a time of social pressure as well. Those who have less cannot afford things for their children, such as new shoes or warm jackets.
Hence, anything you can give to another person who is in need would be very meaningful. Or anything you can do for another would be greatly appreciated. It could even be something as simple as inviting an elderly person or a person with a disability or a poor family to your Christmas dinner or party. Or it could be buying a small turkey for them. Or it could be buying some clothes for them or their kids.
I strongly believe that the more we give to others, the more we are rewarded in ways that are unexpected and very gratifying. In my life, for as long as I can remember, I have been so blessed with so much emotional and instrumental support and kindness from others, even strangers that I have encountered during years of my commute to school and work. For this reason, I have always tried to give to others in ways that I know how or in ways that I can. And so it seems that the more I give, the more good things happen to me.
“For it is in giving that we receive.”
– Francis of Assisi
May this holiday season be filled with much love, kindness, compassion, joy and peace for you and your family. Merry Christmas and be a miracle in someone’s life!