Summer Fun, American Style

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 14, 2005; 9:51 AM

Eight-year-old Shaghayegh Eskandarizadeh had arrived in the United States from Iran just two weeks earlier and spoke barely a word of English. Still, she was doing a pretty good job of following a camp counselor's instructions, trying to figure out whether she was an apple, banana or strawberry.

With chairs arranged in a circle, Shaghayegh stood in the center of a group of 20 children and the camp counselors and said "banana." A third of the children, those with the "banana" label, jumped up and scrambled for free chairs. Shaghayegh dived, squealing, her black hair flying, to grab the nearest seat in this version of musical chairs.

The camp was designed to give Shaghayegh and the other children -- recently arrived refugees from around the world -- a taste of American-style summer fun. The program, established last summer by Arlington Diocese Refugee Services, runs for two five-day sessions and offers soccer and Frisbee as well as arts and crafts and indoor games for children 6 to 17.

For the children -- many of whom have lived in refugee camps, worked to help support their families or missed out on school -- sitting in a room with other children and making collages that describe their lives -- another camp activity -- seems daunting.

That's what Shaghayegh and the other campers were doing alongside their teenage counselors during a recent session at long tables in an Arlington office building. The counselors were getting their own summer camp experience through a program run by Rockville-based PANIM: the Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. The teens were high school juniors and seniors from around the United States enrolled in a "war and peace" class. Counseling is a volunteering component of the class.

PANIM helped Arlington Diocese Refugee Services establish the summer camp. Last year, 12 campers participated in a three-day session; 25 campers signed up this year.

One goal of the camp is to connect the children with others their age who have had similar experiences, said Seyoum Berhe, director of Arlington Diocese Refugee Services, one of 104 affiliates of the Office of Migration and Refugee Services of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Over the past 30 years, the office has helped more than 16,000 refugees settle in Northern Virginia and anticipates aiding 800 this year.

The camp, which is free, is held in boardrooms in the organization's offices at 80 N. Glebe Road and at a nearby park. The children come from families receiving services from the organization, such as English-language classes, temporary housing, cultural orientation, help in finding jobs and other assistance. Families receive a one-time grant of $400 per member. On a recent day, donated goods, including computers, blankets and a giant box of silverware, were piled in the agency's basement.

"These are all children of conflict, but very few of these kids would probably connect with other kids with similar experiences if they didn't have this connection," Berhe said.

The camp also gives the children their first taste of mystifying childhood cultural practices and games such as duck-duck-goose, heads-up-seven-up and musical chairs.

"I think they see a real America," Berhe said. "This is what it's like."

On the first day of camp, most of the children were too shy to talk about their collages, but a few held theirs up for the others to view. Omnya, 6, and Mohamed, 7, a sister and brother from Sudan, drew pictures of houses surrounded by tall, leafy trees. Ahmed, 11, from Somalia, showed a collage depicting his fondness for basketball and hockey, and Venous, 14, from Iran, had made a collage highlighting her interest in playing cards and going to the beach.

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