I heard of Camp Ayandeh before this year. Some friends had been counselors in past years and constantly sang its praises. They talked of what an incredible experience it was to be around amazing Iranian youth, where they had fun but also engaged in substantive dialogue about identity and living in the US as Iranians. I always smiled politely and said “wow, that is very cool.” But in my head I though “it’s probably just another camp with a bunch of kids running around and doing mindless bonding activities for a week.” I recently realized how wrong I was.
Yousef Baker at Camp Ayandeh
This year I was invited to present a workshop at the Iranian Alliances Across Borders' (IAAB) annual Camp Ayandeh. IAAB-started in 2003- is a young, innovative, and dynamic organization committed to working with the Iranian diaspora community. It focuses on empowering young people and fostering leadership. It aims to build a stronger community by developing a critical and conscious new generation of Iranian Americans. Camp Ayandeh (Camp Future) was built to implement that vision. Now in its 6th year, Camp Ayandeh is geared to youth of high school age, the youngest are incoming 9th graders and the oldest are graduating 12th graders. The staff is made up of college students with most of them having been campers in prior years. It is a one-week camp that since its inception has built a national network of young Iranians.
I got to camp on its second full day. The youth were sitting, some on the floor and others on chairs and couches around the room, and the staff all wearing red shirts (the red-shirts as the campers called them) were sitting around them. Some campers went up to tell jokes, and K Von, an Iranian American comedian, followed them up. The jokes were about the quirky realities of being Iranian American. Earlier in the day the youth had a workshop on the idea of “diaspora.” The workshop had asked, what does it mean to be a part of a global trans-national community spread across the globe and the US? In this way the camp began by acknowledging and exploring differences. The youth were made to feel comfortable being Iranian, Azeri, Kurdish, Arab, Jewish, Muslim, or a mixture of all those identities. The comfort was fostered by a trained and dedicated staff that didn’t hide their identities either. That is one of the primary lessons of camp: we all can be Iranian, yet different at the same time.
When the lights were turned on after the comedy show, I read the words that had been written across the wall: trust, ally, friendship, mentorship, education, imagination, family, diaspora, community, and solidarity. These words were the concepts at the heard of the camp’s curriculum.
The next day, there were many ice-breakers, bonding activities, games, playful pranks, singing and dancing to create a tight-knit group of friends from the nearly 85 students and 37 red-shirts that had come to San Francisco from across the United States. The staff did not treat the campers as kids; rather everyone was seen and treated as young scholars. In the Iranian history workshops campers put together their personal histories and stories to create a timeline of events in Iran. In the US history workshop they used songs to explore the different narratives that made up the “American experience.” This was the way that campers explored the concept of “community” and began to live it.
Camp Ayandeh is an exhilarating physical and mental exercise. Workshops were interspersed with noisy games of “vasati” (or Iranian-style dodge ball as the campers called it) and water-balloon fights to cool down in the surprising heat of San Francisco. The activities and workshops built a community not of same-ness, but a community united in its differences, a reflection of the Iranian “nation” and the diaspora. What made Camp Ayandeh unique and innovative was that it built a community of Iranians, not in isolation, but one that is open and engaged with non-Iranian communities. One of the daily “questions of the day” at camp asked campers to think about solidarity and what it meant. Campers and staff explored the similarities among different diaspora communities. How were the migration stories of Iranians similar to those of others from other parts of the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere? How can those shared experiences be used to develop empathy for others and foster solidarity?
This year, Camp Ayandeh had a specific focus on Arab-Iranian relations. The reasons for this were obvious: Arabs make up a significant ethnic minority in the Iranian community, they share similar experiences as the Iranian community especially following 9/11, they are usually clumped together in dominant discourse, and most importantly because of the acrimonious interactions between the two communities that tear them apart at times. Ayandeh took this head on. Moustafa Bayoumi shared his research about post-9/11 experiences of Arab youth with the campers. I discussed my background as an Iraqi-Iranian with the campers and the long and interdependent history of the two peoples and countries. Omar Offendum, a Syrian-American hip-hop artist, shared his experience as a young person growing up in the United States. He spoke about hip-hop as an art form and cultural tool to negotiate and communicate the struggles of being a youth in a transnational community, such as the Arab or Iranian community.
Omar Offendum performing at Camp Ayandeh
The conversation at camp was never a one-way street. Arash Davari, in the writing workshop urged campers to find their voice and to assertively put it on paper and communicate it. He asked students, “what does it mean to say what hasn’t been said?” Then he asked them to say it. It was an incredible sight to see all the young scholars spread out, each finding a quiet place to scribble in their notebooks with great urgency. Where else would young people be excited about writing as much as about hanging out in the summer heat? Indeed, the pedagogical power of camp was the blurring of the lines between play and scholarship. Beyond writing, Dr. Shirin Vossoughi-the camp director-introduced campers to “teatro,” a form of interactive theatre. Throughout the camp the students collectively in groups worked on scenes that would explore the issues raised throughout the week. Camp Ayandeh never lectured students. It engaged in a dialogical conversation, rare in our contemporary test-based schooling system, aimed at developing both the campers and the camp staff.
Halfway through the camp on Sunday evening, I realized the power of this camp. The campers read poems they had written earlier in the writing workshops as an opening act for Omar Offendum. After performing his single Destiny,about the struggles of a Middle Eastern person living in the West, he asked the campers what Ayandeh meant. After responding “future,” they asked him how Ayandeh is said in Arabic. He responded “mustqbal.” The campers broke into chants of “mustaqbal...mustaqbal...mustaqbal.” This interaction symbolized the actualization of community through solidarity and shared meaning making learned in the course of shared experiences. I could only find myself saying, “wow, this camp is very cool.” This time, however I meant it. Let us hope the graduates of Camp Ayandeh lead us into the future.
About the author: Yousef Baker is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
About Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB) - IAAB is a 501(c)(3) non-partisan, non-profit
volunteer organization with a young, dedicated staff spread across the United
States, Europe and Iran. The mission of the organization is to address issues
of the Iranian diaspora community while raising awareness of the Iranian
community, promoting leadership, and connecting Iranians across borders. For
more information about IAAB, please visit www.iranianalliances.org.
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