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Egyptian Christian family celebrates holiday, free of persecution

PALM HARBOR

For weeks, Bishoy had begged his parents. "Please, take me to see Santa!"

The other kids in his first-grade class already had gone. They talked about sitting in Santa's lap. They'd placed their orders.

"Well, we prayed about it," his dad kept saying. "Papa Noel knows you want a bike."

"No, no, no," Bishoy Hana, 6, kept trying to explain. "That's not how they do it here. You can't just pray. You have to go tell Santa what you want. At the mall."

His parents didn't believe him. In Egypt, where they fled from last year, Santa could never be in the mall. He would be shot.

Bishoy kept pleading.

So on a warm Friday, his parents picked him up at Sutherland Elementary, slung his red backpack into their battered Mazda and strapped him in beside his baby sister. Then his mom turned around and, smiling, asked, "Do you still want to go see Santa?"

• • •

They couldn't go to church last Christmas. "The crazy people were bombing churches," said Bishoy's dad, Marcos Hana, 41.

They couldn't put up lights. "Someone decorated their cellphone shop," he said, "and it was burned."

Bishoy's mom, Viviane, 31, set up a small tree in their three-bedroom home. "Far away from any window, so no one would see."

Marcos owned an import-export business, brokering everything from shoes to fish tanks, traveling to China. Viviane was a ticket agent at the airport. They met at a Coptic Christian church and married in 2006.

For the first five years, they were not afraid.

But Coptic Christians were targets of sectarian violence in the struggle for power in Egypt, with the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Morsi and then Morsi's ouster by the Egyptian military.

At Christmas 2011, Islamist extremists planted a car bomb outside a church in Alexandria that killed 23. "There were body parts all over the streets," Marcos said. In April 2012, extremists stormed St. Mary's Church in Cairo, slit a man's throat and set the building on fire.

Viviane's boss told her to cover her head. "I only do that in church," she said. "For God." She started pinning up her waist-length hair, so no one would run up to her and cut it off.

Then last December, something horrible happened to the Hanas.

So they joined a growing wave of Coptics who have sought asylum in the United States.

In the past three years, officials estimate, 100,000 Egyptian Christians have fled; about 40,000 relocated to the United States. The number of U.S. asylum cases from Egypt doubled.

One of the largest populations landed in Florida, where the weather is similar to Egypt's and there are 16 Coptic churches.

The Tampa Bay area has four Coptic churches and the state's largest group of Egyptian asylum-seekers. In the plast year, more than 300 families have come here. Church members help them find apartments and jobs, give them furniture and clothes, even pay the first three months' rent.

"We're getting overwhelmed," said Amira Salama, who left Cairo 35 years ago. Her Clearwater nonprofit, Coptic Orthodox Charities Inc., has helped resettle Christian Egyptians for 15 years. "This is the biggest influx we've ever had."

For the families who fled, who left everything for their religion, what is it like, this first Christmas in America, to see blinking snowmen on street lights and tinseled trees in public parks? How do they feel about the commercialization of the holiday they hold so sacred?

In Egypt, Christmas is Jan. 7, and the celebration is strictly spiritual. Families attend a four-hour Mass laced with incense and incantations. Afterward, a Sunday school teacher dresses up as Papa Noel and gives each child a single small gift.

Here, Bishoy's classmates told him, Santa comes right to your house with a huge bag filled with everything you ask for.

• • •

He chattered all the way to the mall, about flying reindeer and singing snowmen and angry birds. His English had improved so much in the past year. He was introducing his parents to all kinds of new things.

Like video games. In Egypt, kids went to arcades to play. Few had their own systems at home.

Bishoy's new friends all had Xboxes and PlayStations. They told him about Star Wars and Skylanders, showed him how to download sample games on his dad's laptop. His favorite was one he called "GTA." He didn't know what the letters stood for. "It's where you just steal cars and stuff," he told his mom.

She shook her head. Was that how American boys played?

"Where is he?" Bishoy asked, running through the mall parking lot. "Where is Santa?"

They entered Countryside Mall on the second story. Bishoy ran ahead of his parents, who marveled at the white lights dripping from store windows and gaped at the pyramids of poinsettias.

"We could never do decorations," said Marcos. "In Egypt everything is under the table."

"I like to see all the people happy," said Viviane. "Here everyone celebrates out loud."

Bishoy raced past the displays, the Disney Store and GameStop.

At the top of the escalator, he looked down, through a forest of fake fir trees, and squealed, "There he is!"

• • •

They won't talk about what happened, why they ultimately left Egypt.

Marcos gets angry if you ask. Viviane just cries. "We were not safe," said Marcos. "I could not keep my family safe."

While he was working in China last December, someone attacked Viviane. "Torture," said Salama. "Don't ask any more."

Then Viviane learned she was pregnant and Marcos told her they had to go. He had a visitor's visa to the United States. Viviane got free round-trip tickets from working at the airport. Neither of them had ever been to America.

They withdrew $3,000 from the bank, packed four suitcases with clothes, stuffed in photos from their wedding and Bishoy's baptism. "Everything else, we left," says Marcos. The china set Viviane's mom had given them, the car and home they had almost paid off, Bishoy's little gold bike. "Everything."

One week after they decided to go, Marcos stood at the door holding their luggage, calling for Viviane and Bishoy. His brother was there to drive them to the airport. Viviane and Bishoy didn't come.

"I found them, each in their bedroom, crying," Marcos says. "When I saw them crying, I cried too."

"We did not take a deep breath for 12 hours," says Viviane. "Not until we got off the plane."

On New Year's Eve, they landed in Vero Beach, where Marcos' sister is a pharmacist. By April, they had spent their $3,000.

• • •

Visitors visas last six months. After that, if they don't have asylum, they have to leave.

It used to take a month to get an interview, Salama said. Now, because so many Egyptians are applying, they have to wait up to six months.

Marcos' sister drove Viviane to Miami, where an official spent two hours asking her what had happened and what she was afraid of.

In May, she and her family were granted asylum — and Social Security cards. But she was too pregnant to work. And Marcos couldn't find a job.

Friends from their church in Cairo had moved to Clearwater. There are two Coptic churches near here, they told Marcos. The people will help you, there are plenty of jobs.

So in June, Marcos' sister drove the family across Florida and they landed in a two-bedroom apartment in Palm Harbor. Church members paid the deposits, found a wooden coffee table, two teal sofas and two mattresses, even got them a set of white dishes. When the baby was born in August, the women of the church bought piles of pink clothes.

Marcos and Viviane named their daughter after their new church, St. Verena. "If Coptic charity didn't help us, I don't know what we would have done," Marcos said. "They even got me a job."

He moves ramps on the tarmac at the Clearwater airport, making about one-fourth of his Egyptian income.

"I can't buy anything now for my son or my wife. But I'm satisfied," Marcos said. "How can you put a price on your family's safety?"

The walls of their apartment are blank, except for a crayon drawing of a peace sign. The few clothes they have are still in suitcases. On the front door, there's a tiny American flag.

They couldn't afford a Christmas tree. "This is the first year we haven't had one," Viviane said.

At school, Bishoy's teacher let each student pick out a present. Instead of choosing a toy car, like Papa Noel had brought him last year, he picked a gold Christmas tree the size of a water bottle. "When we can afford it," his mom promised. "We will buy the biggest tree there is and set it up right in the window, so everyone will see."

• • •

While Bishoy bounded down the escalator, his parents struggled with the stroller. Salama, from Coptic charities, had come in case they needed an interpreter. "What will he ask Santa for?" she asked. A bike, Marcos said. He had seen a gold one in Walmart, like the one he left in Egypt.

"And you?" Salama asked the couple. "What do you want for Christmas?"

"Peace for the Middle East," Marcos said.

"And for our family that is still there," said Viviane.

Bishoy waited at the bottom of the escalator. Ahead, he could see Santa's huge emerald throne. He walked slowly toward it, suddenly timid, and stopped when he saw the big, bearded man.

"Is that the real Santa?" he whispered.

"What do you think?" asked his mom.

He studied the black boots, wide belt, floppy, fur-lined hat. This was no Sunday school teacher. This man looked just like the guy on TV. "Yes," said Bishoy. "I think he is real."

"Ho, ho, ho! What's your name, little man?" Santa called. Bishoy stood, staring at him. "Come on," said Santa, patting his knee. "Sit right up here."

Bishoy hesitated, then climbed into his lap. Santa asked his age, whether he liked school. Then it was Bishoy's turn. "Do you really have reindeer? How many? Where are they?"

"Of course I have reindeer. Eight, plus Rudolph," said Santa. "They're home at the North Pole, resting up for their big night."

"Who's Rudolph?" Bishoy asked. "Where's the North Pole?"

Finally, Santa got around to business. "So what do you want for Christmas?"

Bishoy tapped his chin with his finger and grinned. Then he looked straight at Santa and said, in perfect English, "The new Xbox."

Santa chuckled. Bishoy's parents looked perplexed. What's an Xbox? Marcos asked the translator. How much does one cost?

"I thought you wanted a bike," Bishoy's dad said afterward.

The boy shrugged. "I changed my mind."

They were almost to the escalator when Bishoy broke away and ran back to Santa. Another child was in his lap, so the boy tapped a woman in reindeer antlers. "Hey, can you tell Santa something?" he asked, sounding desperate. The woman nodded.

"Tell him I don't really want the Xbox," Bishoy said, amending his first American Christmas list. "I want the new PlayStation."

News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Lane DeGregory can be reached at (727)893-8825 or ldegregory@tampabay.com.

More about their faith

The Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian church in Egypt, making up about 10 percent of the country's population. They believe in the Holy Trinity and in Jesus as their savior. Their churches are often filled with elaborate icons, and their services are highly formal.

How to help: To help Coptic Christians in the Tampa Bay area, send inquiries or checks to: Coptic Orthodox Charities Inc., 2312 Gulf to Bay Blvd., Clearwater, FL 33765; call (727) 785-3551; or go to

copticcharities.org.

Egyptian Christian family celebrates holiday, free of persecution 12/24/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 10:04pm]

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