Muslim schoolchildren welcome visit, gifts from Santa

Dec 20, 2013 by

DEARBORN, Mich. — Inside a public school, Santa Claus waved to the eager kids awaiting to receive presents from him.

“Keefak,” he said to the largely Muslim group of children, using an Arabic word that means, “How are you?”

One boy replied in Arabic: “Is Santa Arab?”

At this school, Santa Claus is.

For 24 years, he 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.

At Salina, at least 95% of the students are Arab-American Muslims, many of them of Yemeni descent from homes where parents are religious conservatives.

Despite the differences in faith and ethnicity, the kids and families have embraced the Western and Christian tradition of Santa Claus. Over the years, only a couple of Muslim parents have objected to their students participating because of religious reasons, said organizers.

Started by the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, now called ACCESS, the 40-year program at the preschool through third grade school is aimed at bringing holiday cheer to children in the south end of Dearborn, a largely Yemeni-American enclave that has higher poverty rates than other parts of the city.

Traditionally, the south end has been a gateway for immigrants to Dearborn and Detroit, said Stokes, a board member emeritus at ACCESS.

Stokes recalled the challenges his grandmother faced in West Virginia in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan protested the influx of Catholic immigrants from southern Europe and the Middle East. He sees the Yemeni-American kids at Salina as the latest wave of America’s long tradition of immigration.

Brigitte Fawaz-Anouti, 47, director of social services and special projects at ACCESS, remembers getting gifts 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.

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After receiving a gift from Santa Claus during a holiday party Thurs., Dec. 19, 2013, at Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, Mich., Nadrah Ahmed, 10, shows it off to her school’s principal Susan Stanley.(Photo: Regina H. Boone, Detroit Free Press)

Today, Fawaz-Anouti is in charge of the program, personally buying 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.

“It’s not Christmas without this program,” Fawaz-Anouti said. “It’s just part of the tradition here.”

Fawaz-Anouti makes sure to get gifts that are in line with the beliefs of observant Muslims. Most of the girls in the school wear hijab, the Islamic headscarf.

“When I get a Barbie, I make sure she’s fully clothed,” she said. “I try to be culturally sensitive.”

Fawaz-Anouti grew up Muslim, but her family had a Christmas tree and exchanged gifts. The Salina program isn’t about a particular religious holiday, but more of a cultural event, she said.

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.

The issue of Santa Claus’ race and background became an issue over the past week after a Fox News host asserted that Santa is white, and a school teacher in New Mexico told the same thing to an African-American student dressed as Santa.

But critics point out that the original Santa Claus — St. Nicholas — was from what’s now Turkey and may have been more brown-skinned, like much of the population in Dearborn’s south end.

“He’snot 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.”

via Muslim schoolchildren welcome visit, gifts from Santa.

Education News
by Education News
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