These Summer Camps Give Muslim American Kids a Break From Bullying
Swimming, roasting marshmallows, or gluing together Popsicle stick houses—those are some of the typical activities for kids who head off to summer camp. At a time when Islamophobia in America is worse than right after 9/11, some summer camps are also serving another purpose: providing a safe space for Muslim American youths.
The camps, such as the California-based Muslim Youth Camp and Southern California’s Camp Izza, support the identity, culture, and religion of Muslim American children.
“We just like them having fun, and there’s something really underrated about kids getting to run around and have fun,” Omar Ezzeldine, Camp Izza’s founder, told TakePart about its attendees. Along with spending a night out under the stars, campers might also trace Arabic calligraphy patterns or have conversations about what it means to be Muslim in the United States.
The schedules and meals revolve around the tenets of Islam—time for praying five times daily is allocated, and food and snacks adhere to guidelines for halal eating. If the camp dates fall during the fasting month of Ramadan, meals are only served before sunrise and after sunset.
“It allows younger Muslims to establish and be happy with their Americanness, along with a sense of being able to live that identity of both being American and be a fully devout, practicing Muslim in America,” Ammar Ansari, a director of the Muslim Youth Camp, told TakePart.
The need for a safe space is there. After last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, hate crimes against Muslims Americans and mosques tripled, and a recent survey by the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that 55 percent of Muslim students are bullied at school.
Verbal harassment is the most common form of bullying these students experience at school, with references to “bombs or calling American Muslim students terrorists” most common, according to the survey. Last fall, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim teenager of Sudanese descent, took a clock he built at home to his high school in suburban Dallas and was arrested after a teacher thought it was a bomb.
Through discussion groups, counselors at the Muslim Youth Camp, which serves youths up to age 18, offer support to students struggling with negative stereotypes of Muslims. The counselors share what they have experienced and how to counter that with optimism.
“We will have exercises where a Muslim youth will hear something derogatory or negative, and we work on better ways of responding to negativity through good work and good actions,” Ansari said. “We’re trying to give younger Muslims not only the spiritual and mental strength that’s needed, but also enable them to respond in ways that are Islamic and appropriate.”
Prayer time at Camp Izza, which serves kids four through 12, is followed by reflection on good experiences the campers have had. Counselors also host small discussion groups to talk about identity issues that campers might be having.
For Ezzeldine, it doesn’t feel appropriate to broach the subject of anti-Muslim bullying with four-year-olds who have never been to school and have had limited exposure to negative stereotypes. Instead, Camp Izza teaches attendees to be proud and stand strong, attitudes that are especially important in the face of negative sentiment, he said.
“Sometimes you don’t have to address an issue directly or overtly, and I think we address it indirectly,” Ezzeldine said. “The most successful ways to combat Islamophobia are to have kids develop a sense of pride in who they are, teach them to love themselves, allow them room to have fun, be who you are, and not feel awkward about that.”