When Sara Khalil arrived at the asylum center Sandholmlejren, the five-year-old Iraqi refugee met a couple that would change her life. Two volunteers – Shaker, a Palestinian therapist, and his Danish wife, Kate – formed a rapport with Khalil and her mother, helping them acclimatize to their new life in Copenhagen, including an annual invitation to their Christmas festivities.
Today, Khalil – who is completing her nursing degree – speaks reverently of the role her honorary “grandparents” played in her upbringing. “They’ve always taught me to be more open and reminded me that religions are very similar to each other,” she says of their interfaith marriage, which saw them written about in local papers at the time.
It’s a legacy that Khalil and her husband, Salah Ibrahim, intend to pass on to their young daughter. Although Muslim, the couple have embraced many of the traditions of Christmas, adorning a fir tree in lights and preparing risalamande, the rice pudding dessert mandatory at Danish dinner tables. “We don’t celebrate Christmas in the sense that we think about Jesus being born,” Khalil explains. “It’s more a celebration of family, love, eating good food together, and giving gifts.”
Even as they adopt Christian rituals, elements of the couple’s own faith have been incorporated into the festivities, too. Before they eat on Christmas Eve, Khalil and her husband say an Islamic prayer that honors deceased family members and invites them to share in the feast. And zakat – the Islamic form of alms-giving – has become an integral part of the holiday, with donations directed to the refugee camps that Khalil herself once experienced.
As their daughter grows older, Khalil is excited to share this melting pot of tradition. “I think it would be sad if she couldn’t be a part of something that’s very cosy,” she confides. “I don’t think it goes against a religion – it’s up to you how you choose to celebrate it.”