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Sunday, 24 December 2006

Mysterious Santa helps Bethlehem's neediest

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The identity of the wealthy man who distributes toys and candy to poor Christian and Muslim families is known only to a few. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Page A - 17

Bethlehem, West Bank -- In a darkened room at a secret location in downtown Bethlehem, a small group of anonymous Palestinians is preparing for a secret mission.

Packages are being checked and placed in special bags. In one corner, a man in paramilitary fatigues nurses a semiautomatic machine gun.

Another man is being dressed in heavy disguise before being sent on his mission.

Everyone in this tight-lipped group is sworn to silence. The identity of the man behind the operation is a well-guarded secret.

Soon after night falls, in the twisting alleys of Hosh Nassar, a poor part of the old town near Manger Square, a man in heavy disguise carrying a large bag climbs the steps to the home of the Mickel family and knocks at the door.

Seven-year-old Daniel Mickel opens the door and stares into the face of Santa Claus. "Ahlan W'sahlan! -- Welcome!" he yells, and runs to fetch his brother Amir, 8, and his mother, Terry.

Baba Noel, as Santa is called here, has brought toys for Daniel, Amir and their older brother and sister, as well as chocolates for the family. It is a welcome moment of holiday cheer for the family, which has been living in poverty since 45-year-old Issa Mickel was confined to bed with a brain tumor seven years ago.

"We need help; we are in real trouble," says Terry Mickel as the boys tear open their presents. "This visit from Santa Claus has made the children very happy."

Around the corner, 13-year-old Myrna Siryani is excitedly waiting for the knock on her door after receiving a call from Santa last week asking what she would like as a gift.

"He spoke to me in Arabic!" says the delighted teenager. "He asked me what present I would like, and I said I wanted clothes, because I am too old now for toys."

This weekend, dozens of Bethlehem's poorest children, both Christian and Muslim, received the gifts they requested from the man in the white beard and red suit as he crisscrossed the town in a bright yellow taxi.

But few people know the real identity of the Secret Santa of Bethlehem. It's the closely guarded secret of a local businessman who in the past six years of acute economic distress has given away tens of thousands of dollars to the most impoverished families in the town.

"I try to go to the poorest families, those in real need, where the father is unable to work or perhaps isn't there anymore," he said, hiding his anonymity behind the nickname Abu Christmas -- his personalized version of Baba Noel.

"I ask people I trust to provide lists of the children who need help, on condition they do not tell anyone where the gifts have come from," he said. "They are only allowed to say that we are a secret Christian group that works undercover to make these families happy."

The young children choose toys and dolls. Teenagers usually want clothes, so Abu Christmas gives them vouchers to spend at a local clothing store. He said his only regret was that his own business has fared so badly, because of the drop in tourists to Bethlehem, that this year he will be able to deliver presents to only about 70 children instead of the 150 he has helped in previous years.

In addition to his Christmas operations, the same benefactor has stepped in numerous times in recent years to assist neighbors who have fallen on hard times.

"I believe that if a man needs food, you don't give him fish -- you give him a fishing rod and teach him how to use it," he said.

One grateful recipient of his help said the secret Santa could have bought "one or two houses" with the money he had given away in the past five years.

"I don't know how much the total is," said Abu Christmas. "I don't keep a notebook.

"I do this every day. If I started to calculate the amount, it could be a problem, so I'd rather forget. I'm sure that God will give me back much more than I have given away.

"There are so many people in need, I wish I could help everyone," he said. "I just want to see the children happy."
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Daniel Mickel, 7, and his sister, Jessica, 13, receive presents from Abu Christmas, a nickname for the man who appears each year. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

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