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Palestinian family spends Christmas together for first time in 26 years

28 Dec 2016 – BETHLEHEM (CNS) — For the first time in 26 years, Lilian and Nadeem Aqleh had all six of their children with them to celebrate Christmas.

“This is the happiest day of my life,” said Lilian, 70, who is Catholic, as she celebrated the holiday with her children and grandchildren, some of who traveled from the United States and Canada. “It is hard having your children so far away. I want my children with me. At Christmas we remember the birth of Christ and the meaning of Christmas is to share it with family.”

Only two of the Aqlehs’ children remain in the Bethlehem area. Like many Palestinian Christians, two of the Aqleh siblings went to the United States to study more than 20 years ago and stayed because of better opportunities available to them. A third sister went to Canada with her Egyptian husband for similar reasons.

A fourth sister married an Israeli Palestinian resident of Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city in northern Israel. Although she can visit her parents, she and her husband need a special permit to enter the West Bank.

The last time they were together as a family was in 2001.

But as the Aqlehs’ 50th wedding anniversary approached, their youngest daughter, Jane Aqleh Zelfo, 36, who lives near her parents, decided it was about time the family celebrated the holiday together once again. Her parents are getting older, and her father, 76, has had several heart surgeries, she said.

“I worked hard to make this happen,” Zelfo explained as she put the final touches on the decorations for a catered dinner Dec. 23. “We deserve to be together. We love each other. We have a special relationship. These moments are so special and I want my family to be next to me. Our parents raised us well and always gave us what we needed. They deserve to see their kids all coming together.”

The family had its main celebration on Christmas Eve and also marked the older couple’s anniversary. Zelfo asked everyone to wear Christmas colors to add to the festive atmosphere.

Recalling their tradition of buying new clothes for their children before Christmas, they relished the sight of their grandchildren dressed in new matching red, white, black or wine-colored slacks and skirts.

“Christmas is not about where you are but who you are with and it is a special feeling to experience Christmas again as a family,” said Michael Aqleh, 36, who flew from San Francisco where he owns a car dealership. “We probably won’t be able to have an experience like this ever again. Life is too short to not have this celebration now.”

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