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.
A counselor held up his collage and spoke of his admiration for the Yankees, the Red Sox and the "Governator." The children stared blankly but politely.
Many of the children have been through harrowing experiences they might be reluctant to talk about, Berhe said. "It's good for them to see their age group who might not look like them, who might not come from the same country," but who have gone through similar difficulties, he said.
"It's a United Nations," he said. "These kids don't care about where the other ones are from, or about race or religion. I really think they don't give a damn at all, which is the beauty of it."
Some of the campers were tongue-tied, partly because they were in an unfamiliar setting and partly because of their limited English. But Jamil Haideri, 12, from Afghanistan, who has been in the United States for a year, stepped away from the games to talk about where, and what, he had come from.
A pixie-faced boy with Asian features and a black buzz cut, Jamil spent his childhood shuffling between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan before settling in Fairfax with his mother and three siblings. His father was killed in Kabul when he was a baby, he said, offering chilling, if slightly confusing, details.
"You know why I got these scars?" he said, pointing cheerfully to the healed-over gashes on his forehead. "After four weeks we found [my father's body] and we didn't have money to buy food," he said.
When his mother tried to go out to work, members of the Taliban pushed her to the ground and forbade her to go out without her husband; Jamil fell out of her arms and hit his head, which caused him to have seizures.
"My vein in my head was constricted. So that's why I'm eating medicine," he said.
Jamil said the bread was better in Iran but that most other things are better in the United States.
"They have candies and stuff," he said, describing what he likes about the United States. "And they have coupons. In my country, they never have coupons."
As the camp wound down for the day, Shaghayegh's mother, Shirin Haghighatfar, arrived with her sister-in-law, Shehin Eskandaryzadeh, who also came to the United States in June. The women were there to pick up their children and some supplies for their new apartments. They said that as Mandeans, a religious minority in Iran whose adherents revere John the Baptist, they faced discrimination.
"Our children couldn't have worked in [government] offices, they couldn't go to university," Eskandaryzadeh said.
Watching her two children play with the others, she said she had never seen anything similar in Iran. "It's very interesting," she said as her 12-year-old daughter Janet Jeizan caught a ball and tossed it to another child. "It's obvious that they're having a really good time."
For her, whether she liked America was not an issue. "The freedom we were looking for, we found," she said, "and that is good enough for us."
Frank Tchouga, who is from Cameroon, dribbles a ball after the camp ends for the day. At left is Janet Jeizan.