CAIRO – Santa Claus has made an unexpected visit to a Muslim majority Dearborn elementary school to pass out Christmas gifts to young boys and girls.
“It’s not Christmas without this program,” Brigitte Fawaz-Anouti, 47, director of social services and special projects at Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), told Detroit Free Press.
“It’s just part of the tradition here.”
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Last Thursday, Santa visited Salina Elementary School greeting the mostly Muslim students with “Keefak,” an Arabic word that means, “How are you?”
One boy replied in Arabic: “Is Santa Arab?”
At Salina school, at least 95% of the students are Arab-American Muslims, many of them of Yemeni descent from homes where parents are religious conservatives.
Over the past 24 years, Santa has been played at Salina Elementary School by Jim Stokes, a Dearborn attorney whose grandmother was a Lebanese Catholic immigrant
“When I see the kids, I think of her,” said Stokes, decked out in a Santa suit and beard.
The program was launched 40 years ago by ACCESS to bring holiday cheer to children in the south end of Dearborn, which has been the traditional gateway for immigrants to Dearborn and Detroit.
Fawaz-Anouti, ACCESS director of social services and special projects had herself got a gift from Santa in the 1970s when she attended Salina.
She was 7 in 1974 when she moved to Dearborn from Lebanon along with her parents and recalls how excited she was to get gifts from Santa, played in the 1970s by Ismael Ahmed, ACCESS cofounder and former director of Michigan’s Department of Human Services.
Being in charge of the program today, Fawaz-Anouti personally buys the gifts for the children, which range from foam footballs and basketball hoops for the boys to toy jewelry and dolls for the girls.
They also get healthy snacks and toothbrushes.
The program organizers stressed the Salina program isn’t about a particular religious holiday, but more of a cultural event.
They have also asserted the importance of watching cultural differences for Muslim students.
“When I get a Barbie, I make sure she’s fully clothed,” Fawaz-Anouti, who grew up Muslim, said.
“I try to be culturally sensitive.”
When greeting the kids, Stokes said, “Happy Holidays,” while some kids said, “Merry Christmas.”
Some of the kids gave Santa letters they had written and cookies.
“He’s not connected with any religion,” said Janice Tessier, a vice president at Comerica Bank, which helps sponsor the Santa gift-giving at Salina.
“Kids just love Santa. Santa is a universal figure of happiness.”
Though there are no official estimates, the US is home to from 7 to 8 million Muslims.
Christmas is the main festival on the Christian calendar. Its celebrations reach its peak at 12:00 PM on December 24 of every year.
Muslims believe in Jesus as one of the great Prophets of God and that he is the son of Mary but not the Son of God. He was conceived and born miraculously.
In the Noble Qur’an, Jesus is called "Isa". He is also known as Al-Masih (the Christ) and Ibn Maryam (Son of Mary).
Muslim scholars assert that Muslims have their own identity and in order to keep this identity they must not celebrate Christmas or holidays of non-Muslims.
By participation in Christmas, they say, it is possible that slowly one may lose his or her consciousness of this basic point of difference between Islam and Christianity.