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Chicago O'Hare International Airport
Photo by Erik Tryggestad

As we enter a strange new year, we are a huddled mass, yearning to breathe free

My favorite Christmas Eve memory began on the frayed, dark blue carpet of the Chicago O’Hare International Airport in 2011.

We were on our way to see my family in Nashville. Mom was still alive. Our oldest, Maggie, was 3 and still an only child. 

We sat on the floor with our McDonald’s cheeseburgers because the benches at the gate were packed. (I miss crowded airports. Well, not really.) A group of Asian women took up most of the seats. Their threadbare dresses looked like they belonged in a previous century. Their wrinkled visages bore expressions of exhaustion and bewilderment. 

Something bad had happened to these people. 

One woman lay cramped across two seats, trying to sleep. A toddler, maybe 18 months old, stood next to her, crying to be held. She looked too old to have a baby. She gently motioned the boy away, toward the other women. He cried louder.

I fished through Maggie’s Happy Meal sack and grabbed the toy. “You already have this one,” I said. “Why don’t you give it to that boy?”

I wondered where they came from. What had they gone through to get to this airport? Had they ever been on a plane before the trip that brought them here, to this gate? 

I’ll never forget watching Maggie take those few, timid steps toward the toddler, a host of foreign eyes suddenly transfixed on her. There were no thank-you’s, just slight smiles and nods. The boy stopped crying … for about 90 seconds.

Among their meager carry-ons I noticed some white plastic bags emblazoned in blue with “I.O.M.” I did a quick search on my phone. “International Organization for Migration.” These were refugees. 

I wondered where they came from. What had they gone through to get to this airport? Had they ever been on a plane before the trip that brought them here, to this gate? 

Suddenly, one of them was in front of me, thrusting a cell phone at my ear. She seemed ancient — the family matriarch, perhaps? I took the phone and heard a man chattering in broken English on the other end. A translator. 

His voice soon was replaced by a man with a southern accent who said he was “the pastor.” The refugees were Burmese, he explained, and his church was assisting them as they resettled in Tennessee. Their homeland, Myanmar, was ruled by a military junta until 2011. The country’s government continues to have a terrible track record of humans rights abuses — most recently toward its Muslim Rohingya minority.


The minister and the translator were waiting for the new arrivals at the Nashville airport and didn’t even know if they had made it to the right gate in Chicago. Could I check?

I did. Everything was fine. I told the minister I’d make sure they got on the plane. He thanked me.

“Uh, no problem,” I said. “And God bless you for doing this.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

Chicago O'Hare International Airport

Chicago O’Hare International Airport

I don’t remember much else about that trip. Two years later we were in Nashville again for Mom’s last Christmas before pancreatic cancer took her from us. Ten months after that, our second daughter was born. 

And here we are in the final days of 2020. There’s no trip to Nashville in this year of sadness. We’ve lost so much and so many, and we pray for renewed hope in God’s promise that things will get better.  

Every year I think about that huddled mass of tired, poor souls in the Chicago airport. 

Like them, I yearn to breathe free, to see the sun rise in a new world.

ERIK TRYGGESTAD is president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. Contact [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @eriktryggestad.

Filed under: 2020 Airport christmas christmas eve COVID-19 Insight Opinion pandemic refugee refugee ministry refugees Top Stories

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