Between Swimming And S'mores, Young Muslim Campers Learn To Cope With Rising Hate

Aug 17, 2017
Originally published on November 13, 2017 9:55 am

The sun has set, the hiking, swimming and prayers are over and a group of kids are goofing off, taking turns telling corny jokes in the woods.

"Why did the cow cross the road?" a kindergartner yells into a megaphone in front of his fellow campers. "Because the chicken was on vacation!"

It's a typical summer camp in Northern California, except at this camp all the kids are Muslim.

Every summer for 55 years, Muslim kids, teens, young adults and parents gather in these woods to learn about faith and have fun. It is the oldest camp of its kind for young Muslims in America. But today the camp has a different meaning for this new generation. It's a momentary respite for the campers in a country where anti-Muslim sentiment is rising sharply.

The late Marghoob Quraishi and his wife, Renae "Iffat" Quraishi, founded it, to help new American Muslims find a sense of community.

Originally Indo-Pakistani, Marghoob ended up at Stanford University in California. His daughters say he looked around and realized that new American Muslims, like himself, needed a place to teach their kids about being American Muslims. His wife is an American Caucasian woman who converted to Islam from Methodism and grew up going to Methodist summer camp. So the couple modeled it on that.

The camp is steeped in American camp tradition — hiking, swimming, s'mores — mixed in with prayer and classes.

Marghoob Quraishi died in 2005, and now the couple's daughters and their peers run the camp.

"My father, he saw Islam as a force for good, equality, social justice and pursuing knowledge," said daughter Amira Quraishi, who is the Muslim chaplain at Wellesley College.

In 1960, there weren't many mosques or Muslim clubs in North America. So her father founded Islamic groups at the university campuses he went to. And, of course, he and his wife started Muslim Youth Camp.

"He saw that these were new Muslims in a new country and they needed to try to figure out how they were going to be Muslim in America," Amira recently said at the camp. "The way my dad described it is that he just started walking and then after 20 years looked back and noticed people were coming with him."

"He just thought it was good for people to be together, and be able to pray together and have fun together," she says.

The camp has been home to many Muslim American leaders, like Jihad Turk, who founded and heads Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School, the country's first Islamic graduate seminary. Turk is at camp this year with his kids. Or Shahed Amanullah, who was a senior adviser for technology at the U.S. State Department and has been named one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world several times by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre.

Not the spokesperson

"I don't have any responsibility here; I'm not the only Muslim; I'm not the spokesperson for all of Islam here," said Manar Soliman.

She doesn't have to be the ambassador of her faith.

For 20-year-old Soliman, camp is a family tradition. Her grandfather brought her mother and uncle and aunts here as kids. She says she has six cousins at camp this year.

Back home in Texas, Soliman doesn't have that many Muslim friends. And often her college friends have met only one Muslim — her.

"It's a lot of explaining. You know, why people wear hijab. Why I don't wear hijab; why I don't drink alcohol," she rattles off a list of stereotypes.

With blue hair and goals to be a professional wrestler, she says she doesn't look like what people think Muslims look like.

This year, she is a volunteer counselor with Jasmine Wadalawala, a Mexican-Pakistani-American Muslim, who also went to the camp as a kid. It gave her the confidence to tell people at school she was Muslim. Before camp she hid it, afraid of questions and hostility.

The two women are college students now. They're setting up tents before the campers arrive. And they admit they're a little worried. Days before the weeklong camp began, someone threw a bomb into a Minnesota mosque.

"I was actually thinking in my bunk last night, what if someone comes and busts through the door," Wadalawala said.

It's something other American summer campers probably don't think about. But at this camp, the address is given to people only once they register, to keep it safe. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the camp was threatened.

And there are sessions with campers on how to deal with anti-Islamic rhetoric, which is on the rise.

After a day of swimming and a night of telling jokes, a pre-dawn prayer followed. Campers practiced a hymn while sitting on mats, surrounded by pine trees as the sun rose above them.

"Oh God, help me to do good things and reject awful things and help me to love those in need, please forgive me and have mercy on me."

Asifa Quraishi-Landes, the eldest daughter of the founders of this camp, gives a seminar on how to answer hostile and misinformed questions about being Muslim, like, "Why do Muslims lie and want to change American law?"

"Here's the thing that's really important for us to know and to say," she tells a group of teens and adults. "That Islam itself says that I have to follow the laws of the land that I live in, that is actually part of Sharia."

Quraishi-Landes is a scholar of both constitutional law and Islamic jurisprudence, or Sharia, at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Sharia has many forms of interpretation that guide the way Muslims live, like how they inherit or what they can or cannot eat. It's a lot like Catholic canon law or halacha, Jewish law. But anti-Muslim hate groups tell people it's a threat to the American way of life.

It's a pretty heavy topic for summer camp. But that's what being Muslim in America is today, Quraishi-Landes says.

"Being yourself as a Muslim"

She and her sisters grew up in the camp, and now their children learn about Islam here too. Sometimes she has to force her teenage son to come.

"The environment here creates a balanced Islamic education and [an education on] being yourself as a Muslim that I cannot create anywhere else for him," she said. "This is my shortcut. ... It's the kind of Muslim education I can give my kids without sitting down with a workbook. It's fun. It's fun to be a kid; it's fun to be a Muslim kid too."

Another camp organizer, 37-year-old social worker Sakeena Mirza, who is Quraishi-Landes' cousin, says this camp is more important than ever for her children.

"There's so much distaste for being Muslim in the world and the country so there's a push away from the faith," she says.

At school, Mirza's kids watch other children pretend to be terrorists and shout Allahu Akbar (God is greatest) -- a term that is holy to her and her family.

"These are the types of the environments where being Muslim feels vile and it's hated and I feel like I didn't have to deal with that when I was younger," she said. "I felt different. I didn't feel hated."

This year the kids, teens and young adults have classes that explore the Islamic saying "Love for your brother, what you love for yourself."

Over the years the themes have changed. Back in the '60s, the themes were simple and focused on heritage — like in 1963 when it was literally "Our Islamic Heritage."

Today, the themes deal with the current moment, when hate crimes against Muslims have spiked.

Last year it was "Indeed, with hardship there is ease."

This year, in almost all the classes, bullying comes up. A poll by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding suggests Muslim children are bullied more often than their Jewish or Christian peers at school.

Zareena Grewal, a parent and historical anthropologist at Yale, leads a class of middle-schoolers at camp. She asks the group if people think Muslims are weird.

"No, they just call me a terrorist," one student says.

"They call you a terrorist?" Grewal asks.

"They'll be like, 'Guys he has a bomb on his watch, run. He's going to bomb the school,' " he says. The camp teachers asked that NPR not use the kids' names while discussing sensitive topics for fear they would be further bullied.

The boy shrugs. Says he doesn't care. Other kids nod.

At the end of Grewal's class she asks a question.

"If you can imagine those people at your school were able to see us here at camp playing basketball, or telling jokes at campfire or just being ordinary campers, do you think that would change their views?"

"No, they wouldn't care," the campers respond. "They'd probably think it's a terrorist training camp."

But one boy disagrees.

"If they saw us in the classes and learning about all this stuff they would know that we're humans, not just animals."

As the class ends, the boys and girls start teasing each other and run outside for free time.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now a visit to the oldest summer camp for Muslim children in the country. Fifty-five years ago, an Indo-Pakistani man and his Caucasian wife opened the camp in the California woods. They modeled it on Methodist summer camps. Kids, hike, swim and roast s'mores. They also get some lessons on how to cope in a country where anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise. NPR's Leila Fadel joined the campers this year.

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #1: Why did the cow cross the road?

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPERS #1: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #1: Because the chicken was on vacation.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The sun has set. The hiking, swimming and prayers are over. And the kids are goofing off, taking turns telling jokes. Moments like these are some of Jasmine Wadalawala and Manar Soliman's favorite memories of being campers at Muslim Youth Camp. This year, the two college students who came to camp as children are volunteer counselors. They're setting up tents in the middle of towering pine trees in the northern California woods. For Soliman, it's a family tradition that dates back to her grandfather.

MANAR SOLIMAN: I have, like, six cousins that are here right now.

FADEL: Most of her friends back home in Texas, she says, had never met a Muslim before her. They have a lot of stereotypes of what a Muslim looks like, and it is not her. She has blue hair and goals to be a professional wrestler.

SOLIMAN: It's a lot of explaining - you know, why people wear hijab, why I don't wear hijab, you know, why I don't drink alcohol and all of these things.

FADEL: But at camp there's none of that.

SOLIMAN: I don't have any, like, responsibility. I'm not, like, the only Muslim. I'm not the spokesperson for all of Islam here.

FADEL: This year, she and Wadalawala are a little worried. Days before the week-long camp began, someone threw a bomb into a Minnesota mosque.

SOLIMAN: Who gets the address to this place?

JASMINE WADALAWALA: I was thinking Muslim Youth Camp. I was like, that sounds like - that would be kind of scary.

SOLIMAN: It - yeah.

WADALAWALA: I actually thinking that last night in my bunk. I was like, what if somebody comes, like, and busts through the door, like, with a gun?

SOLIMAN: Maybe we should change the name.

FADEL: It's something other American summer campers probably don't think about. But at this camp, the address is only given to people once they register to keep it safe. And there are sessions with campers on how to deal with anti-Islamic rhetoric, which is rising sharply. After a day of swimming...

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #2: Mom, take these.

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #3: You can use them if you want.

FADEL: ...Skits about good and bad character traits...

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #4: Hey, can I read your book?

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #5: The half-blood - yeah. You can read my book.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: ...And after learning a prayer at dawn, sitting on mats outside surrounded by trees...

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPERS #2: (Praying in foreign language).

FADEL: ...Asifa Quraishi-Landes, the daughter of the founders of this camp, gives a seminar on how to answer hostile questions about being Muslims, like do Muslims lie and want to change American law? She's a scholar of law.

ASIFA QURAISHI-LANDES: Here's the thing that's really important for us to know and to say, that Islam itself says I have to follow the laws of the land that I live in. That is actually part of sharia.

FADEL: Sharia is Islamic jurisprudence. And it has many forms of interpretation that guide the way that Muslims live, including what they eat. It's a lot like Catholic canon law or halacha, Jewish law. But anti-Muslim groups tell people it's a threat to the American way of life. It's a pretty heavy topic for summer camp, but that's what being Muslim in America is today, Asifa Quraishi-Landes says. She and her sisters grew up in this camp, and now their children learn about Islam here, too.

QURAISHI-LANDES: It comes out of fun. Like, you know, it's fun. It's fun to be a kid. (Laughter) It should be fun to be Muslim kid, too.

FADEL: The kids have classes that explore the Islamic saying, love for your brother what you love for yourself. Bullying comes up. Zareena Grewal, a historical anthropologist at Yale, leads a class of middle schoolers at camp. She asks if people think Muslims are weird.

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #6: No. They just call me a terrorist.

ZAREENA GREWAL: They call you a terrorist?

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #6: They're like, guys, he has a bomb on his watch. Run, he's going to bomb the school.

FADEL: The boy shrugs, says he doesn't care. Other kids nod. Almost all of them have been called ISIS or terrorist. Camp teachers asked me not to use children's names when they were sharing sensitive stories in class about being bullied. Grewal asks a question.

GREWAL: If you imagine those people at your school were able to see us here at camp playing basketball or just being ordinary campers, do you think that would change their views?

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #6: No, they wouldn't care.

FADEL: But one child disagrees.

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #7: I think if they saw us doing the classes and, like, learning about all this stuff, then they would know that we're humans, not just animals.

FADEL: Humans, not just animals. The class ends. The boys and girls start teasing each other and run outside for free time. Leila Fadel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANCHA VIA CIRCUITO'S "SUENO EN PARAGUAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.