Afghan kids came here for a better life. B’nai Israel’s summer camp helped them find it

Ahmed Jan Hussani is an 11-year-old boy with a devilish smile that makes it look like he is constantly about to prank you. This month, he swam for the first time. He was a little nervous at the beginning, but acclimated quickly.

“The water only went up to here,” he said, putting his hand up to the middle of his chest to demonstrate.

Hussani is an Afghan refugee – he came to the U.S. a little more than a year ago, along with the rest of his family. And he got the chance to swim at Camp Nefesh, a free summer camp for refugee children run primarily by teenagers at Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento.

Each morning, activities at Camp Nefesh started the same way. A long yellow bus pulled into the parking lot. Kids streamed out, and ran to tables where they retrieved their name tags. They played soccer, tag, huddled in groups of twos and threes to talk and laugh. As kids enter the camp, they pass the front of the temple building, which bears the words ‘love they neighbor as thyself’.

On the second to last day of camp, which ended Friday, the theme was ‘holidays’– in under four hours, the kids cycled through Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. Volunteers set out costumes for the kids – armed with fake mustaches and sparkly tutus, they trick-or-treated from classroom to classroom. They made each other Valentine’s Day cards. Later in the day they ate pumpkin bread at tables with red, white and blue tablecloths.

On dinosaur day, one of the volunteers showed the kids how to make the prehistoric creatures out of paper plates. Another day, the campers visited the Sacramento Zoo, free of charge. On music day, a volunteer taught the kids how to make their own musical instruments. Then, the kids performed a mini-symphony.

One of the teens behind the camp’s creation is Lucy Beckett, a senior at Consumes High School in Elk Grove. She was inspired after taking a field trip to Seattle with other teens from the congregation, where they visited a summer camp for child refugees run by the International Rescue Committee.

The camp in Seattle seemed simple enough to replicate in Sacramento. B’nai Israel already put on a summer camp for its youth members, and has established ties with Opening Doors, a Sacramento nonprofit group that resettles refugees. Beckett approached Denise Crevin, the congregation’s director of education, with the idea.

“This entire camp was made possible because a group of teens came to me and rabbi and said – isn’t there something we can do here?” said Crevin. “And we empowered them to make it happen.”

Beckett, a self-professed “summer camp kid”, said she wanted everyone to experience the same joy camp gave her. “It gives kids a chance to meet new friends and have a break from school and life,” she said. “It’s a place where they can just have fun.”

About 55 campers, all between 6 to 13 and exclusively from Afghanistan, took part in Camp Nefesh. This isn’t a coincidence – Sacramento is a magnet city for Afghan refugees. Most of their parents came to U.S. through Special Immigrant Visas program for people who worked with the U.S. military overseas, most often as translators, for a minimum of two years. They spent two to three years in an intensive screening process before they were able to resettle.

In the past four years, more than 16,000 refugees have come to Sacramento for a new life. But the transition is riddled with challenges.

Ahmad Ibrahimi, the ESL coordinator for Opening Doors who worked with B’nai Israel to coordinate the camp, moved to Sacarmento from Afghanistan four years ago. He didn’t have a license or a car. For months, whether it was scorching hot or pouring rain, he walked his kids two miles to and from school. His son Namatullah, still learning English and disoriented by the unfamiliar environment, cried every day at school for a week.

“I stayed with him – probably for an hour – for a few days,” said Ibrahimi. “He was 6 years old. That was the big challenge.”

Camp Nefesh offers a two-week reprieve from those difficulties.

“When they’re going there, they’re playing a lot,” said Ibrahimi. “When they’re coming back home, they are very excited and happy.”

But the campers – loud, talkative, tireless – weren’t always like this. On the first day, the kids were shy, hesitant to talk. Only a few asked for a space to do their afternoon prayers. The volunteers put those who did ask in the library. But the library didn’t work, the kids told them, because it was filled with picture books. They couldn’t pray with pictures in the room.

The next day, the volunteers took down all the posters in the youth lounge and moved them there. Now, the majority of the kids do their afternoon prayers there.

“It’s been a learning opportunity for all of us,” Crevin said. “Our counselors have been able to ask questions and learn from the kids.”

Crevin said in spite of all the cultural differences that have bubbled to the surface in the past two weeks, they have found common ground, too.

On Friday, the kids made challah, a traditional braided Jewish bread. Most had never heard of challah. That same week, one of the kids brought homemade Afghan bread. The volunteers had never seen bread like it before.

“There are things that are different, but in general, we all make our own bread,” Crevin said.

On the second day of camp, Namatullah woke up early – he was excited to go back to camp, and he wanted to make sure he was ready to get on the bus on time.

The bus doesn’t come until 11, Ibrahimi tried to explain to his son. You don’t need to wake up this early.

Namatullah didn’t care. He wanted to make sure he was ready for the bus. He was excited to go to summer camp.