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Saturday, 20 December 2008

Bethlehem's very secret Santa

Each year, an anonymous Christian businessman brings peace and goodwill (and presents) to Palestinian children. But his helpers are far from ordinary elves ...

Words Matthew Kalman
Photographs David Blumenfeld
SUNDAY TELEGRAPH "SEVEN" MAGAZINE
December 21, 2008

Star of Bethlehem: Abu Christmas announces his presence by ringing a bell

Dusk is falling as a bearded man slips out of a doorway near the bustling main street of Bethlehem and melts into the darkness. Outside, the streets are thronged with residents, pilgrims and tourists making last-minute preparations for Christmas.

As they hurry towards the Church of the Nativity, in Manger Square, which marks the site of Jesus’s birthplace, they hardly notice the man slipping into one of the hundreds of yellow Palestinian taxis that roam the streets of this ancient town.

The taxi stops at an apartment in Beit Jala, on the western outskirts of Bethlehem. As the man slowly makes his way up the staircase, a shy young girl stands at the door expectantly and then lets out a piercing scream, as she stares straight into the face of Father Christmas.

'Ahlan W’sahlan! – Welcome!’ shrieks 12-year-old Nasreen, running to fetch her brothers and sisters.

Father Christmas brings clothing coupons for Nasreen, her sisters, Gianna, 18, and Jihan, 17, Jolene, 14, along with toys for their younger brothers, Nicolas, six, and five-year-old Fahdi.

Watching in quiet elation, as the two young boys tear off the shiny wrapping paper, is their mother, Marlene. She lost her husband, a truck driver, nearly two years ago in a car accident. To make ends meet, the 36-year-old mother of six has been baking cakes at home and selling them to cafes in town.

As Christmas approaches, along with the anniversary of her husband’s death, she has been dreading the holiday. 'We don’t have a Christmas tree or decorations this year, since with the children missing their father, it was all too hard,’ she says quietly.

Earlier in the week, Marlene received a mysterious call, asking what her six children wanted from Father Christmas. She was told to expect a special visitor after 4pm. 'At first, I thought it was a joke,’ she says.

'We’ve had so many calls from people promising this or that, and then nothing would happen.

'I refused to believe it. Until now,’ she says, tears welling.

It is a scene repeated in dozens of the poorest homes across Bethlehem every year in the days before Christmas.

Few people know the identity of the man in the Santa Claus outfit.

It’s the closely guarded secret of a Christian businessman who, in the past eight years of acute economic distress, has given away tens of thousands of pounds to the most impoverished families in the town.

They have been hard hit by a growing economic crisis that has sent unemployment soaring to more than 25 per cent and pushed 20 per cent of families below the poverty line. The Israeli security barrier, built to deter suicide bombers, has cut them off from Jerusalem and surrounding villages. The Intifada and the barrier have reduced the 100 tourist buses that used to throng the streets each day to a trickle, all but destroying the town’s economy.

In the week before Christmas, the Secret Santa spends hours on the phone finalising the list of Bethlehem’s neediest youngsters, both Christian and Muslim, and then phones each child to ask what gift they would like. Then he trawls the streets of Bethlehem and Hebron – a half-hour’s drive away – scouring local shops for the best deals. The shopkeepers are sworn to secrecy, under threat of not getting his business in future.

Then, in a cigarette-smoke-filled lair the businessman and his elves – a small retinue of carefully chosen accomplices – wrap the presents and plan how they will go about delivering them. The operation – which I was allowed to witness only after agreeing not to reveal the location of the team’s headquarters or the identity of the men involved – is carried out with military precision.

The fact that some of the men have day jobs as officers in the Palestinian security services, and wear walkie-talkies, sub-machine guns and paramilitary uniforms, is a reminder of more sinister plots, and of other men, also operating under a veil of secrecy, who have carried bombs rather than bags of gifts.

The presents – delivered to more than 100 children – include Barbie dolls, Superman and Spider-Man costumes, stuffed toys, wireless remote-controlled trucks and guns, doll’s houses, shotguns and 'Fulah,’ a 2½ ft doll which sings Arabic songs.

The recipients are mostly content to squeal with delight and rip open their packages, revealing gifts they could never hope to receive from their own families. Some give the red-suited stranger a shy kiss or a sweet. Others stand in shocked and delighted silence.

After each delivery, Santa’s yellow taxi takes off at full speed. In the back seat, his helpers take turns in ringing a bell, attracting bemused attention from passers-by and mingling with the haunting chant of the minarets as the sound of the muezzin’s call for evening prayers drifts across the town.

In a twisting alley in the poverty-stricken backstreets near Manger Square, the Abdul family are waiting patiently at the door for the arrival of 'Baba Noel’, as Father Christmas is called here in Arabic.

A tiny kerosene heater is the only thing to warm the freezing apartment, home to Saliba, 10, Liandra, seven, five-year-old Giovanni and their mother Maryam.

'If there were more Santas in this world, there would be peace ... even here in Palestine,’ says Maryam as she watches the expressions of joy and wonder on the faces of her children.

Around the corner, 10-year-old Riham Endonya and her widowed mother, Carol, are waiting for their special visitor. 'He called and said he was coming today,’ says Riham, barely able to contain her excitement. 'I asked him to bring me a baby doll. My sister, Natalie, is 15. He is bringing her a voucher to buy clothes. We have dressed in our best clothes to greet him when he comes today.’

Nearby, Mary Jabriya says her five children have been up since dawn. Her four daughters, aged 11 to 17, all asked Santa for clothes. Her nine-year-old son, Tony, requested a wireless remote-controlled Jeep.

'The children love Santa Claus,’ says Mary. 'He promised to come and bring the gifts. The children could hardly sleep they were so excited. They have been awake since early morning, counting the hours until he comes.’

'The conditions in Bethlehem are very difficult. People don’t have enough money. You work, work, work and you get less and less,’ she says.

That goes for the man in the red suit himself. Maintaining his anonymity behind the code name Abu Christmas, he tells me that his own business has fared badly in recent years. 'I would like to do more, much more,’ he says.

Nevertheless, he helps as many as he can. 'I try to go to the poorest families, those in real need where the father is unable to work or perhaps isn’t there any more,’ says Abu Christmas.

'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. They are only allowed to say that we are a secret Christian group that works under cover to make these families happy.’

The young children choose toys and dolls. The teenagers usually want clothes, so Abu Christmas gives them vouchers to spend at a clothing store. 'One girl said to me: “You can’t be Father Christmas. He isn’t in Palestine and he doesn’t speak Arabic.” I told her to test me and tell me what she wanted anyway. I hope she’ll get a pleasant surprise.’

In addition to his Christmas operations, the same anonymous benefactor has stepped in many times in recent years to help neighbours 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 says.

One man who received his help says Abu Christmas could have bought 'one or two houses’ with the money he has given away in recent years.

'I don’t know how much the total is,’ says 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.’

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