For Nataly Toubassi, the Christmas lighting ceremony at Lewis University Monday was bittersweet.
Angelic voices of the choir resounded in the twilight next to bare trees adorned with twinkling lights -- a stark contrast to her Jerusalem homeland that is torn apart in war.
Toubassi, a graduate of Bethlehem University, has been studying at Lewis University in Romeoville for the past three months through a unique partnership the universities share.
Both schools are administered by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, based on the teachings of St. John Baptist de La Salle, and Bethlehem University is the only Catholic university in the Palestinian land.
Since 1985, the two universities have collaborated to send Bethlehem graduates to Lewis to study and help develop community leaders.
Toubassi, who will study at Lewis for the next two years before returning to her homeland to teach, said the freedom she experiences in the United States is exciting.
“I feel safe,” she said. “There are no checkpoints. There are no soldiers. From the first day I got here to Lewis, I saw all the Brothers and they are like my friends, my family. The people are so nice, so friendly. I feel home.”
Yet, it is also hard to celebrate the Christmas season – her first without her family – when her country is embroiled in conflict.
“It is hard to feel the joy,” she said. “I can’t be happy when I see all the people in my country die.”
Christmas in Jerusalem has always been Toubassi’s favorite holiday.
In some ways, it is like Christmas in the United States. Families gather to share dinner and desserts.
But for Toubassi’s family, one of the Christmas highlights is attending prayer services at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, considered to be the oldest continuously operating Christian church in the world and built on the site of Jesus’ birthplace.
The church is six miles from Jerusalem, but it takes more than two hours to get there due to the numerous security checkpoints.
Once arriving in the United States, Toubassi carried her passport with her at all times for a month out of habit before understanding that it was not needed.
“I’m very thankful for God,” she said. “I’m living the freedom I didn’t feel for 23 years. This is a big present for me.”
In his opening remarks before the holiday decorations were lit, Brother James Gaffney, president of Lewis University, said he prayed for family, community, hope and light in a world of darkness as Thanksgiving and Christmas approaches.
“Let us renew our belief in the ultimate triumph of light over darkness … of hope over despair,” he said. “Let us be light to each other.”
Toubassi said she also has a Christmas wish.
“Peace,” she said. “The conflict right now needs to calm down. Stop the war. Make the children feel the joy of Christmas. Peace is what I most dream. I want people to feel this freedom.”