By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer, America.gov
Diverse camp focuses on community, connections for Iranian-American teens
Washington - The truth about Camp Ayandeh, as Ramin Bajoghli will tell you, is that it maybe doesn't sound like the most fun an Iranian-American teenager could have during summer vacation.
Games, yes, but also lectures about cultural and academic topics. Workshops on team-building. A focus on issues as well as soccer.
"We only had 19 or 20 kids the first year, and all their parents forced them to come," said Bajoghli, who was one of the organizers that year and, four years later, is head of the advisory board for the nonprofit group that runs the camp.
When the camp convenes for its fifth season in July, it will have its largest crowd yet, 85 campers, and - as usual - 60 to 70 percent will be returnees from past years. Bajoghli said that before organizers even decide each winter when the camp will open, they hear from families who want to know the schedule so they can register their teenagers. Most applications arrive well before the deadline. And the counselors, all unpaid, tend to be former campers.
"It's not a boring camp," he said.
file photo: camp ayandeh 2009
The group that sponsors Ayandeh, Iranian Alliances Across Borders, with the help of a grant from the Parsa Community Foundation and other donations, was the creation in 2003 of Bajoghli's sister Narges and her friend Nikoo Paydar, two college students near Boston, Massachusetts. They wanted an organization that could help members of the Iranian diaspora build communities, improve understanding of life in the Iranian diaspora and maintain ties with Iran. They also wanted to involve Iranian Americans even younger than college age, and Ramin Bajoghli said they asked their non-Iranian friends what had built their ethnic or national identity as kids. One answer: summer camp.
So Camp Ayandeh brings Iranian-American teenagers of high school age (the oldest campers are about to enter college) to one appealing spot or another for six days in summer. "The schedule is balanced out between fun, academics and community building," Bajoghli said.
Although the campers are all Iranian American, he said their differences are substantial: "It's a very diverse community - politically, ethnically, religiously. ... We don't want to alienate anybody."
One of the more important differences among the teenagers is the extent of their ties to the larger Iranian-American community. Bajoghli said most come from areas with large concentrations of families from Iran, so those campers are accustomed to being around other teens who eat similar foods at home and celebrate the same holidays. The ones who have grown up a bit isolated from other Iranian Americans can be self-conscious about their culture and benefit from a few days with other boys and girls like themselves, he said.
In a group as focused on academic success as Iranian Americans, it's probably not surprising that each year at camp involves some effort to point campers toward college. One of the staff members is involved with a well-known company in the field of college preparation and educational testing, and she discusses different issues - how to prepare for college, how to select a college and how to succeed in the high-stress application process - with students of different ages.
But Bajoghli said the camp also hopes to expand the teenagers' intellectual boundaries and pique their interest in concerns about society, and he said it seems to be succeeding. He said many former campers become leaders of their college Iranian-American student groups or involved in other issues, and many choose such majors as sociology, psychology and political science. "In the Iranian-American community, it's hard to tell your parents that you don't want to be a doctor or an engineer," he said.
After four years at a variety of sites on the East Coast, Camp Ayandeh will go to the West Coast for the first time in 2010, on the campus of Notre Dame de Namur University in northern California. Bajoghli said the campers always have come from across the United States and have remained linked - by e-mail and on Facebook and other social sites - despite the distances. "It's created a network, which was one of the goals of the camp as well," he said.
The camp's success at building a community of young Iranian Americans will get a closer look this summer. One of last year's volunteer counselors, Neda Maghbouleh, is returning this year to do research on the subject for her doctoral degree in sociology.
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