Muslim camps are spreading in the U.S. to help kids ‘be proud of who they are’

By Abigail Hauslohner for The Washington Post on July 6th

Author Nadia Hashimi, an Afghan American, speaks to students about the power of words at Camp Ramadan on Thursday in Bethesda. (Ayesha Ahmad)

It was the last day of Camp Ramadan, and a sea of smiling parents had their arms outstretched, holding up more than a dozen cellphones to capture all of the song and dance and children’s humor contained in the end-of-camp assembly. And onstage, a normally polite and bookish 11-year-old was channeling Donald Trump.

“As a leader, who do you wish to serve?” a child, playing the role of debate interviewer, asked the boy’s character — a certain political candidate with the alias of Ronald McDonald.

“I wish to serve my very fantastic self,” answered Amir-Abbas, 11, provoking peals of laughter from the parents. Money, he told the interviewer, is the key to great leadership — and he had lots of it.

“I’m trying to make America great again by kicking out Mexicans, Muslims and African Americans,” he added.

“By the way,” he said, sweeping a hand over his dark, cropped hair. “This hair is real.”

When Mona Eldadah started this camp four years ago, the idea was mainly about getting fasting Muslim kids off the couch during the holy month of Ramadan, and into activities that were both creatively stimulating and unifying.

“I felt like kids were having this isolated experience fasting at home, and felt like, ‘Ugh, I’m the only one doing this,’” explained Eldadah, an interior designer and mother of four. And so began Camp Ramadan — a week-long camp at the end of the month, where kids can fast together while also doing activities that are more enriching than watching Netflix.

Now, the camp has reached its largest number of campers to date at 101, and has acquired the reputation as a place where D.C.-area Muslim kids can learn about and practice a core Muslim tradition, while making friends, creating art and talking freely about current affairs — like Trump.

This year, the Next Wave Muslim Initiative, which Eldadah helped found, rented the Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda for the week of camp.

“You think this age group is young,” she said, taking the stage at the end of the leadership skit featuring the Trump character. “But [they’re] also very mature, thoughtful children.”

Fasting during the daytime hours of Ramadan is one of the core religious obligations of observant Muslims, and is meant to foster a greater connection to God. The practice typically starts around puberty. For many preteens and teens, it serves as an informal rite of passage into Muslim adulthood around the same time that Jewish kids are having bar or bat mitzvahs and some Christian kids are receiving their first Communion.

Fasting is hard; especially when it’s hot outside and you’re new at it. “But when they come here, they kind of struggle together,” said Eldadah. When they arrive in the morning, “they’re kind of sleepy. But by the end, they’re so excited.”

For a week this year, the campers practiced paper marbling, created watercolor sunsets with a foreground of a domed mosque and minarets and took pictures of one another with rented cameras on the school’s playground.

The 6- and 7-year-olds went on a hike to a nearby cave to learn about how the prophet Muhammad visited a cave outside of Mecca, where Islam teaches that he received the word of God. And the 8- and 9-year-olds decided to make their end-of-camp skit about the animated characters from the movie Minions” observing Ramadan. (The Minions are tempted to break their fast when they see a banana, the characters’ main food obsession in the popular 2015 children’s film.)

The youngest children, ages 3 to 5, learned about the animals of the Koran. (“Old Mustafa had a farm,” they sang at the last day’s assembly in a muddle of high-pitched, off-tempo toddler voices. “And on that farm he had some bees — with the blessing of Allaaaaah.”)

And the 12- to 16-year-olds met the Afghan American author Nadia Hashimi, who read them a passage from her new book, “One Half from the East,” about an Afghan girl whose parents disguise her as a boy so that she can help provide for the family in a restrictive Afghan society.

“How do you think that makes girls feel?” Hashimi asked the adolescents, prompting a discussion about gender equality, followed by an exercise in storytelling.

Each day at about noon — when most other Montgomery County campers would be breaking for lunch — the kids at Camp Ramadan troop into the school’s auditorium, stand shoulder to shoulder and then kneel in unison for prayer.

“The best of America” and a Muslim identity

The kids at Camp Ramadan come from a mix of Muslim families, Eldadah says. Some of the girls wear headscarves; others wear shorts and T-shirts. Some of their families attend the mosque regularly; others don’t go at all. But nearly every single one of the 12- to 16-year-olds this year is fasting.

Coming here makes a difference, said Aziza, 12, who knelt on the floor with five of her best girlfriends on a recent day, packing up goody bags for the younger kids to mark the end of Ramadan. “At home you just get super lazy, like, ‘Ehh, the bathroom is sooo far!’”

The others giggled in agreement. At home they’d be sleeping through the fast, or watching TV, they said. Now the fun of camp distracts them — sort of — from the fasting, and they still get to have sleepovers and watch Netflix at night.

Ramadan, which shifts each year with a lunar calendar, started while the kids were still in school this summer. It ended Tuesday night with the start of the festival of Eid.

“Guys, how was your sleep schedule at school?” asked Fatima, a 13-year-old with braces, as the girls stuffed plastic bags full of lollipops, play dough, balloons and slapstick bracelets. “I was fasting during finals.”

“My last day of school, I was so mad because we had a party and got catering from Chipotle and an ice cream bar,” said Aziza. “I love Chipotle.”

Another girl mumbled something about the greatness of tacos. “I love tacos,” Aziza agreed.

Muslim camp directors say Muslim summer camps are taking off in the United States and Canada, as North America’s Muslim population grows, and first- or second-generation parents look for ways to keep the faith among children who — obsessing over Instagram, tween slang and Harry Potter — are often far more immersed in America than they are in the original cultures of their parents.

Camp Tawheed in Michigan offers jet ski tubing, soccer, tennis and Koranic study. At the weekend summer camp offered by the Qalam Institute in Dallas, campers can play dodgeball, roast s’mores and participate in group prayer. And at Camp Deen, a week-long sleep-away camp in Ontario that was founded in 1972, campers learn how to hike, fish and avoid bears, while slumbering each night beneath the pines in cabins named after the famous men and women of Islam.

“It allows them really to meld the best of America, the things that are more uniquely American, but at the same time keep and actually strengthen their Muslim identity,” said Chad Jones, a public affairs officer at U.S. Army Fort Meade and an administrator at the camp, where all three of his kids are all campers.

“One of the biggest challenges for Muslim kids growing up in North America is finding social settings where they can be themselves, without having to feel judged or restricted,” the camp’s website explains. “At Camp Deen, our priority is making kids proud of who they are.”

It’s a concept that an older American minority group has used for the past 120 years of existence. Now a diverse assortment of Jewish summer camps in North America serve more than 200,000 campers annually, according to the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

Sam Perlin, who heads Camp Solomon Schechter in the woods outside Olympia, Wash., said Jewish camp helps kids to form and maintain “a strong Jewish identity” through traditions that they might not necessarily keep at home, like the Sabbath and keeping kosher.

“The campers live Jewishly, and they don’t have that opportunity in greater America, especially here in Washington state,” he said.

At Camp Ramadan, the final day’s assembly came to a close with the teenagers’ unveiling of an “Eid Mubarak” — a blessed holiday — mural that they painted with the blended styles of traditional Arabic calligraphy and spray paint graffiti. The kids ooh-ed and aah-ed and cheered wildly for their friends during a camp slideshow set to a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” And then it was time to say goodbye.

Children hugged. Parents thanked Eldadah. Families collected the posterboards, paintings and photos created by their children.

“Turning Islam back to talking about leadership qualities, going back to morality and ethics — I think that’s something they really value,” Eldadah said of the families as they left the school. “There are people who aren’t very religious at all, and they come to camp and they live Muslim.”

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