As a child, I lived in extreme poverty and faced persecution for my Christian faith in the Middle East. I vividly remember life in our small and nearly empty house. We had so few possessions—no television, no radio, nothing for entertainment. We simply hoped to survive. We had our church and friends, but we never knew what each new day would bring—including the day we were forced to leave our home.
I am disheartened to say I am not alone in this experience. Every minute, nearly 20 people around the world are forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of conflict or persecution. There are more than 22 million refugees in the world today and more than half are under the age of 18. The number of displaced people groups is at its highest since World War II—according to a recent United Nations Refugee Agency report. My family and I roamed through three different Middle Eastern countries in search of a place to call home. None proved safe for us. I cannot explain what it feels like to be destitute. And yet, we had our faith and we clung to it. There was little we could do but pray and hope God would hear us and help us.
There was a turning point for my family and me when someone from the United States sent us a shoebox filled with personal care items and simple toys through Operation Christmas Child. Not only was I honored to have received a gift of any kind (the first I’d ever had), I could not believe someone from so far away would actually care enough to remember me. You have no idea the power you have to brighten a child’s day, week, month or even year just by gathering a few basic inexpensive items and packing them in a shoebox. Something as inconsequential for you as making a quick trip to the store could quite literally change a child’s life.
We once felt isolated, certain we had been forgotten. But when that shoebox gift arrived, we were astonished to find that not only was a stranger thinking about us, but whoever sent it to us had also given us a connection to the outside world—a radio. We had prayed for such a thing, but we didn’t know if or how we would ever have one. This simple gift reshaped the lives of an entire family.
In 2010 we came to the U.S. as refugees, and I graduated earlier this year with a bachelor’s degree in education. On the brink of beginning my career, when I look back over all the life I have already lived I am amazed. I feel privileged to have found a home in North Carolina, but few born where I was will be so fortunate.
The political realities and reasons so many have been displaced are anything but simple, but encouraging those who face nothing but despair could not be simpler. A shoebox can become a very special way to bring some levity to the children who face such a serious situation in the Middle East. This month, hundreds of thousands of Americans will transform shoeboxes into gifts of hope to children facing difficult circumstances overseas.
As we approach the time of year when people begin to consider all they have, give thanks, and celebrate with family and friends, I urge you to remember young refugees and join the largest Christmas project of its kind. The children have often seen and experienced the unimaginable, but they are still children. The potential for childlike wonder and excitement still exists.
Dania Yadago graduated from Salem College in May 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in education and a minor in music. She is committed to raising her voice on behalf of those who remain in the Middle East and serves as a national spokesperson for Operation Christmas Child.