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Bolstered by Christmas Carols in a Troubled Land

Just when it seemed as if the spirit of the holiday would elude her, a grandmother serving in Iraq sings her way to the season's peace.

Suzanne Fournier giving  Christmas gifts to children

Christmas Eve. A time when I’d usually be giddy with excitement. There’d be last-minute shopping, cinnamon rolls to pop in the oven, presents to wrap.

Not this year. Instead I wondered what my husband, Gil, was doing. In almost 40 years of marriage we’d never spent Christmas apart.

And I wondered what had possessed me, at age 61, to come to Iraq. I’m a grandma 20 times over! Grandmas bake pies on Christmas. They don’t wear body armor.

My office, in a former Republican Guard barracks on the base in southern Iraq, felt like a prison cell. We were on a security lockdown, so there was little to do but think about everything I was missing back home.

I absentmindedly fingered one of the Christmas cards I’d sent back home to the States. I remembered the almost missionary zeal that brought me here last September.

I’d seen a posting at work, in public affairs with the Army Corps of Engineers, and felt called to serve in this land where Abraham once lived, to help the Iraqi people and my Corps of Engineers colleagues in their work. I wanted to do more than what I was doing stateside.

Being here in Iraq doing my part to help the reconstruction was rewarding, but my enthusiasm had long since been dampened by the realities of war.

And writing press releases about construction projects—roads, bridges and schools—couldn’t make up for homemade Christmas cookies, midnight Mass and all the wondrous carols I loved so much, always my favorite part of Christmas.

I tried to sing a few lines of “Joy to the World,” but the words stuck in my throat. Something was missing. Peace on earth? Someone apparently forgot to requisition that.

I took out my journal and a pen and started listing all the carols I could think of: “Silent Night,” “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “We Three Kings.”

We used to go around the neighborhood singing carols, even visited nursing homes and hospitals. Those beautiful words and melodies never failed to warm my heart even on the coldest of nights.

I listed 15 carols, then tossed the pen aside. What was the point? The Christmas spirit wasn’t something you could force.

In a way, a hymn brought me to Iraq. Many times I’d sat in church and sung those words, “Here I am Lord, send me,” but never taken the action.

Then I saw that posting. Our children were grown. I was in good shape. Gil was one hundred percent supportive.

When I left for Nasiriyah, Iraq, in 2005 I knew there would be challenges. I thought I was ready. But nothing could have prepared me for the harsh reality of life in a war zone.

Hospitals and schools were primitive at best. We couldn’t build nearly fast enough to meet the need. Sometimes it seemed pointless.

As soon as we finished, insurgents would bomb the buildings into rubble. The Iraqis we befriended one day were killed the next. Civilian Iraqis and coalition forces died daily. What were they dying for? Where was God in all this?

He had seemed so close back home, but now with misery everywhere, I wasn’t so sure. Nothing had ever confused my faith like war.

I glanced at the Christmas card on my desk. On the outside was a photo of me surrounded by smiling Iraqi schoolgirls at the ribbon cutting for their new school two months earlier.

Maybe it was because they reminded me of my grandchildren, but I had wanted to preserve this moment. I would never forget that day.

Their school was so basic, put together mostly out of cinder blocks. Yet the girls looked at it in wonder, as if it were solid gold.

I handed out school supplies and the kids crowded around me, a tangle of outstretched hands eager for a few sheets of paper and a handful of crayons and pencils. And, of course, a little bit of candy.

Their faces lit up—like my grandchildren’s on Christmas morning.

A young female teacher walked up. Iraqi women usually couldn’t interact with the Corps because they weren’t allowed to talk to men in public. I could tell she was eager to talk to me.

“Our old school was made of mud,” she said. “During the rainy season, the children sat in mud all day. But they love school. With Saddam gone even more children are coming to school. They walk for miles to get here. Nothing can stop them.”

Now, sitting in my trailer staring at the photo on my Christmas card, I wanted to feel that optimism again, the optimism of children, the optimism of Christmas.
In a few months I would be home again. Would this all seem like a dream? A bad dream? Lord, I prayed, help me find hope. Help me find Christmas.

There was a knock on the door. A friend poked her head in.

“Merry Christmas!” she said. “We’re putting together a caroling group. Meet in an hour in the office at the end of the hall.”

Caroling? In Iraq? Was that allowed?

“I’ll be there!” I said, before my doubts got the better of me. I grabbed my list, then got on the internet to put together a songbook, humming as I searched.

Ten of us gathered in the office for a run-through. We went around the room, each person suggesting a carol.

Mine was “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” Another person offered “We Three Kings.” Then, “Away in a Manger.”

Our voices blended perfectly, like we’d rehearsed for months. Soon we were talking and laughing as much as we were singing.

Everyone had a different caroling story: about meeting their husband, of singing in a snowstorm or a tender moment with a relative. It was remarkable how familiar it all felt. Like I was home.

First we went to the engineers’ cubicles next door.

“Merry Christmas!” I cried. They looked a bit startled until we broke into “Joy to the World.” Pretty soon they all gathered round, toes tapping, bodies swaying. By the chorus everyone was singing.

We glided down the hallway to the next office, a few of the engineers joining our group. A crowd met us at the door. I heard someone jingling sleigh bells.

“Away in a Manger,” we sang, our voices swelling. I looked into the faces of my colleagues and thought of our shared struggles in Iraq.

These words I’d sung year after year somehow seemed even more meaningful. I’d never given much thought to shepherds back home. But here I’d seen them tending their flocks just outside the base.

This was an ancient land, the land of the Old Testament, the land of Abraham. And here I was, standing on that same ground at Christmas.

We made our way outside, headed to the trailer next door. I looked up and saw the first glimmer of stars. The wise men had come from Iran, from Persia, right next door.

I wondered at their incredible faith to travel hundreds of rugged miles guided by one brilliant, shimmering light. Did that light still guide me?

Inside, at a common area, we were greeted by a group of battle-hardened soldiers. They’d been in Iraq much longer than I had, seen horrors I could only imagine.

Yet they were so young! Surely they missed their families and friends too. When we sang I saw their faces soften. This was the spirit of Christmas I thought I’d left at home.

It was late when I returned to my trailer. I was still humming carols, my heart light.

I looked over at the Christmas card with all those Iraqi schoolgirls and felt an incredible sense of peace. God wasn’t far away. In fact, he seemed closer than ever.

Joy to the world! The savior reigns. At least this Christmas Iraq seemed like the perfect place for a grandma.

View Suzanne's photographs of her time in Iraq in this slideshow.

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