JERSEY CITY, NEW JERSEY —
Santa Claus, it turns out, bears a striking resemblance to Mahmoud Mahmoud, director of the Church World Service office in Jersey City, New Jersey.
That’s because he was Santa, who just happened to be Muslim, for the nearly 40 refugee children who caught their first-ever glimpse of him during their premiere winter holiday experience in the United States.
Many of them had come from as far away as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Church World Service, with the help of sponsors and Santa’s helpers, used the occasion to deliver a welcoming treat the families will never forget. The celebration included heaps of toys, wrapped beneath a less-than-traditional white-and-red tree (the event itself was nonreligious).
The children waited eagerly, sipping from their juice boxes while poking, curiously, at the wrapped gifts inscribed with their names.
When Mahmoud finally entered the room, dressed as Old Saint Nick (sans the beard and belly, and sporting a flashy gold wristwatch), he immediately went to work. “Ho, ho, ho!” he belted, to the children’s amusement, en route to his throne. Even the teenagers smiled. He proceeded to call every child’s name and hand-deliver two presents to each one. The crowd applauded each time.
For Mahmoud, who organized the festivities, seeing the children’s faces light up was a tremendous feeling. He said many of them, before coming to the United States, were indoors all the time, unable to go out and purchase toys.
“For a child, when they receive any gift, like Play-Doh or building blocks, that is instrumental to their development,” Mahmoud said. “They’re putting blocks together — that’s what an architect or an engineer would do. With Play-Doh, they’re figuring out puzzles.”
He said the joy and happiness is infectious and allows recently arrived families the added relief of not having to make purchases that they might not be able to afford.
WATCH: Santa Delights Refugee Children, Families
Zyad, a father of four from Syria, expressed thanks for the gifts, which he called “beautiful.”
“When I see my children happy, I am happy,” he said.
Hussam, also from Syria, felt the same way. He came to the United States in June with his wife and two children, Maysa and Wesam, who both attend school in New Jersey.
“It’s been five years since my children have experienced a childhood or had toys to play with, because of war,” said Hussam, who spoke to VOA through an interpreter. “They now have a community. They have toys to play with. They’re getting their childhood back.”
An enduring sense of bliss encompassed the room, even before the first package was unwrapped. But it just so happened that the presents included some of the trendiest toys in today’s market — Play-Doh Fun Factory Deluxe, Franklin 5-in-1 Sports Center and LEGO Technic Race Cars, to name a few.
The tinier tots, who required additional guidance with their unwrapping techniques, gleamed with joy upon realizing the Nursery Blanket Buddies and Disney Toddler Dolls beside them were theirs to keep.