"Congratulations," Mahmoud Gomaa said to a class of first-graders standing under a model airplane. "You've just arrived in the holy city of Mecca."
Gomaa, vice principal of the American Youth Academy, came to the school seven years ago and brought the annual hajj simulation to teach children about the rite, the fifth pillar of Islam.
The annual five-day pilgrimage to Islam's holiest city starts Sunday. But in Tampa, more than 400 students at the private Islamic school started early, re-enacting significant events in the lives of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael as chronicled in the Koran.
Older students had built replicas of buildings and a mountain that students might see in Mecca more than 7,000 miles away.
Gomaa welcomed students into the large room and told the children they were in a safe place. First, they would get clean and put on special clothes — a white drape exposing the right shoulders of the boys and modest clothes covering all but the hands and faces of the girls. Then they lay under a tent.
Gomaa said the simulation is the best way to educate people, and invites anyone interested to call the office to schedule a visit. He said the journey of Abraham, commanded by God to sacrifice his son, is similar to stories in Judaism and Christianity.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Gomaa said, people heard things about Islam that misrepresent what most Muslims believe. He is working to change that. The school hires non-Muslim teachers to expose children to those outside the religion. Currently, about 40 percent of the school's teachers are not Muslim.
• • •
Kindergarten teacher June Page started at the school in 1996, and said her students were excited to see the simulation. Page, who is not Muslim, served as principal for seven months during a time when the school nearly closed and many teachers left because there was no money for pay. It earned her the unofficial title of mother to the school.
It's the second to operate at 5905 E 130th Ave. The first was co-founded by former USF professor Sami Al-Arian in 1992 as the Islamic Academy of Florida. In 2003, that school lost a third of its funding, about $350,000, from a state program that paid private school tuition for poor children after Al-Arian was charged with using it as a front to raise money for Palestinian terrorists.
The American Youth Academy opened on the property the next year. This year, the school became a candidate for the prestigious International Baccalaureate program.
Gomaa said that many people still don't know much about Islam.
"The best way is to open our doors so they will see and hear and then they will get the right message," he said.
He works to teach the students to relate to different types of people and still maintain their identity.
"Outside our gates, we're a minority," Gomaa said.
• • •
Layalee Ahmad, 8, pointed out the mountain of Arafat, where sins are forgiven by God. Layalee likes to wear her hijab on Fridays, although girls don't have to until they enter sixth grade.
She picked up a pebble from many strewn on a tarp next to the mountain. The children threw them into a bin, representing Satan, who tempted Abraham to not listen to God.
The rites continued with a cotton sheep presented by God as a substitute sacrifice. Then the students cut a locket of hair, an act of submission, and circled a sacred house called the ka'bah with a stone made black by sin.
"The prophet put it there when he and his son were building the ka'bah," Layalee said.
Salman Alnashir, also 8, went to Mecca when he was 4 and said walking around the ka'bah is his favorite part.
The students then traced the steps of Abraham's wife Hagar and son Ishmael in the desert and end the ritual with a drink from a spring called Zamzam, which still flows today.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.