Utah Christmas stories: A refugee family finds a new home, a sick baby finds new life

Modern, universal themes exist in the Bible’s “Nativity” account.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Ngendakuriyo family spends time together at home in West Jordan on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023, as the younger kids follow along to a dance game. From left, Alexison, Arnold and Abella twirl and shake as parents Alex and Virginia relax with their daughters Annie and 5-month-old Amelia. The refugee family who fled the genocide in Rwanda and spent years in a refugee camp in Tanzania eventually arrived in Utah as the family grew.

Why should a 2,000-year-old story about a baby born in a barn, a set of kings following a magic star, an unwed mother with a forgiving fiance, and a flight from violence have any relevance today — especially if it comes from a particular religious tradition?

Simple. The themes are so universal, and increasingly modern, that they can be told in any language in any locale across the globe. Even Utah.

Complicated parenting, adoptive fathers, the mystery of astronomy and the plight of refugees are among the most knotty of contemporary circumstances, but also fairly common.

Still, the Christmas narrative is primarily about joy in the wonder of birth, hope amid trouble, help for the helpless. The so-called welcoming innkeeper (some traditions suggest the place was run by relatives of Joseph and Mary) is one of the quiet heroes of the story.

As Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers fame famously advised, during dark times, “look for the helpers,” and there are plenty of family, friends, neighbors, religions, government agencies and nonprofit organizations assisting with all these populations — never more than at this season.

Here’s how these Utahns have lived out these Nativity-type themes:

‘Not because we were strong, just lucky’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alex Ngendakuriyo is joined by his wife, Virginia, and their 5-month-old daughter, Amelia, at their home in West Jordan on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023.

At 8 years old, Alex Ngendakuriyo saw more death during the 1994 Rwandan genocide than many soldiers see in a lifetime.

His father had moved from Burundi in 1972 to escape a civil war to neighboring Rwanda, where he met his wife. After two decades and five children, his new country was even more rocked than his former home by violence and murderous attacks.

“We had to witness people being killed by machetes or buried alive,” Ngendakuriyo reports. “A lot of us survived the war, not because we were strong, just lucky.”

Like the biblical Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, fleeing into Egypt to avoid the savagery of Herod, this family had to sneak out in the dead of night for safety.

It took some 14 days, hiding in the jungle by day, for the family to reach a refugee camp in Tanzania, where they lived for 15 years in tents that provided little shelter from raging diseases and wild animals.

“Getting a meal a day was a little challenging,” Ngendakuriyo says now. “We lost the meaning of being hungry.”

There were no schools in the camps and not much health care. Refugee children learned little but survival.

In 2007, luck smiled on them again — the parents and three of their children (the oldest two were left behind because they had families of their own) were chosen to move to the United States.

Though grateful, the refugees found their new journey littered with new challenges. Learning a language, getting an education, developing work skills, navigating a foreign culture — all were necessary aspects of starting over.

While being a member of a Latter-day Saint Swahili congregation in Salt Lake City and volunteering to aid others in the non-English speaking community, Ngendakuriyo earned an associate degree in criminal justice from Salt Lake Community College and a bachelor’s at Weber State University in sociology.

Now, he has five children of his own, speaks several languages, works with law enforcement, assists with refugee resettlement, and, he says, encourages newcomers “to pursue their dreams.”

God helped him survive the horrors and trauma of war, and gave him strength to thrive in a new place, he believes. “He made it possible for me to be alive today.”

‘We had an end-of-life date’

(Courtesy of the Gross family) Newborn Isabella Gross had a congenital heart defect and had surgery on her second day of life in June 2021.

Imagine if the baby in the manger had a congenital heart defect. What would Mary and Joseph have done? Probably just swaddle him up and say a prayer.

Michelle and Michael Gross certainly entreated the heavens for the survival of their baby daughter, Isabella, born in the spring of 2021 in Salt Lake City, with hypoplastic left heart syndrome — or, in simple terms, half a heart.

They sought doctors, who operated on the baby’s second day of life. She spent most of the next four months at Primary Children’s Hospital, the state’s premier pediatric center, until her second operation — with only a few weeks at home in Idaho Falls. Even after that, Isabella failed to thrive.

Finally, the only solution was a heart transplant.

Michelle stayed at the Ronald McDonald House in Utah for months with the couple’s then-3-year-old son, Benjamin, as Isabella waited for a heart to become available, and Michael remained in Idaho to work.

Weeks turned into months. The separation became unbearable, so the frantic father quit his job as a mechanic, and the family moved together to Utah in September 2022.

A month later, Isabella got a new heart.

It wasn’t a panacea. She was worse than before. She was intubated and beginning to fail. She could not eat on her own or gain weight.

“We had,” the sad mom says, “an end-of-life date.”

After almost another year of struggle, doctors became convinced Isabella needed another transplant. They told the parents to take their daughter home in the summer and enjoy what little time she had left. Go to the playground. Swing on the swings. Play with her brother. Have a picnic. Get ready to lose her.

(Courtesy of the Gross family) The Gross family, originally from Idaho Falls, includes parents Michael Gross and Michelle Gross and children Benjamin and Isabella.

This fall, they returned to Primary and found her heart was healing. While she is still waiting for a second transplant, she has begun hitting regular growth milestones and trying to get healthy. She’s feisty, talking and walking.

This will be her third Christmas — and the best one yet.

It is time to “forget everything,” Michelle says, “and be grateful for what we have.”

It’s no less a miracle for this family than a star guiding wise men across an unfamiliar landscape.

(Courtesy of the Gross family) As a toddler, Isabella Gross walks with her father, Michael Gross, at Primary Children’s Hospital in 2023.