LAUREN FRAYER, HOST:
Church services today will center on a certain miracle birth in Bethlehem. For our next guest, the real Bethlehem this year is on a Greek island where refugees live in squalor. Stephanie Saldana wrote about this in an essay published this weekend in The New York Times entitled "Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas." She joins me on the line now from Jerusalem. Hello, and merry Christmas to you.
STEPHANIE SALDANA: Hello, merry Christmas. Thanks so much for having me.
FRAYER: Tell us why you think this year Jesus would choose to spend his Christmas with refugees.
SALDANA: My job is to write stories about disappearing cultural heritage in the Middle East. So I travel all over the world looking for refugees and their stories. So I traveled to a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, which was built for around 2,300 people and now has more than 6,000. And the conditions are appalling. And yet, as I spent several days there among the people there, I discovered the Christmas story. For example, I met a man named Allah Adeen (ph). And he just found out that his wife is pregnant. But the camp is so crowded that there was no room for them inside. And then I understood that part of the story where the holy family had to go to Bethlehem because of bureaucracy, because of a census.
I sat with these men and women who told me about the wars that they left behind. And yet, they were so kind. They didn't have anything to sit on, so they would give me a small piece of wood to sit on or a piece of plastic to sit on. And I looked at them, and I felt that the Christmas story is this. It's not only that the holy family were on the margins of society, that Jesus was put in a manger, that the first people who recognized them were not the powerful. They were shepherds. They were the poor. And I thought these people are where God is.
FRAYER: I wonder if you could read those - the final lines of your piece in which you describe the Moria refugee camp.
SALDANA: (Reading) Looking at Moria can also teach us what Christmas really is, a story of how our salvation is bound up in the lives of those who suffer most. Today, Moria is Bethlehem. Those stranded inside are not humans to be disposed of but Emmanuel, God with us.
FRAYER: That's beautiful. You are American. You grew up in Texas. You went to Harvard Divinity School. How did you end up in the Middle East?
SALDANA: I actually had a fellowship to write poetry. And I came to Bethlehem. And in Bethlehem, I fell in love with the Middle East and decided to give my life to it. I then moved to Syria. And Syria is where I learned my Arabic on a Fulbright. And so when I meet these people, they're speaking to me in a language that I understand. But I also knew people from their country before the war started. So for me, they're not just refugees. They were my neighbors.
FRAYER: I read that actually your father worked with refugees.
SALDANA: Yes. My father was the director of Catholic Charities in San Antonio, Texas. And there, he started one of the largest resettlement agencies for refugees who don't have family in America. He worked to bring people from all over the world who were suffering, from Iran, from Iraq, from Africa. And when he died, the Catholic Church awarded him a plaque. And that plaque had a picture of the holy family fleeing as refugees. And when I looked at it, I said, oh, my goodness. Jesus was a refugee. And I've never forgotten that.
FRAYER: Stephanie Saldana, author of the memoir "A Country Between," thank you so much and merry Christmas.
SALDANA: Thank you and merry Christmas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.