Muslim Summer Camps Are Growing in the U.S. to Help Children ‘be Proud of Their Heritage’

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

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SOURCE: Abigail Hauslohner
The Washington Post