Youngsters Farkhonda Ibrahimi and Ahmad Jan Niaz Mohammad spent last summer in their native Afghanistan reading, writing and preparing for the new school year.
Some 7,000 miles away, 16-year-old Lucy Beckett spent last summer in Seattle taking part in the Union for Reform Judaism Mitzvah Corps.
This year, all three of them came together in Sacramento at Camp Nefesh, a Jewish-run day camp for refugee children. It was founded in partnership with Opening Doors (a nonprofit that helps underserved members of the Sacramento area) and Congregation B’nai Israel of Sacramento.
The camp, from July 30 through Aug. 10, was the brainchild of Beckett and a few of her peers after they were inspired by their experience last summer at Mitzvah Corps, which empowers Jewish teens to play an active role in pursuing justice. The theme of the Seattle gathering was immigrant and refugee rights, which led the Sacramento area teens to develop Camp Nefesh for 2018.
“Our synagogue is very passionate about immigrant and refugee rights,” Beckett said. “I also am passionate about helping children.”
Realizing that B’nai Israel already had good infrastructure with its long-running Camp Shelanu for Jewish kids, Beckett talked to Rabbi Mona Alfi and education director Denise Crevin about starting a day camp for refugee kids. Beckett also came up with the camp’s name, which means “soul” in Hebrew.
“This has all been teen-led,” Alfi said of the free, two-week program, which is funded by donations. “The confirmation class came back from their Mitzvah Corps trip and felt passionate and completely enthused. They are aware of how we are assisting refugees and immigrants, and that it’s a priority that comes from a religious imperative. They came to me and said, ‘This is how we want to act.’”
After months of preparation, the camp began on the final Monday of July with 48 children (all of Afghan heritage, as it turned out) who now live in the Sacramento area. As they exited the bus that would bring them to B’nai Israel every day, the 5- to 13-year-olds in many ways looked like all-American kids with “Cars” backpacks, baseball caps and T-shirts emblazoned with designer names. Even the girls wearing colorful hijabs and long skirts looked right at home.
“Sacramento is an incredibly welcoming community of many faiths,” said Deborah Ortiz, executive director of Opening Doors, adding that B’nai Israel “is a leader among them all. This rises above religious beliefs and is about the common experience of being a refugee.”
According to We Are All America, a Chicago-based organization that seeks to build inclusive communities across religious and cultural lines, Sacramento was the largest resettlement location in 2017, receiving more than 5,000 immigrants and refugees.
Moreover, because the Sacramento area has emerged as a leading destination for Afghan refugees (upwards of 2,000 since 2010), all of the Nefesh campers are children of Afghans who received special immigrant visas after working as interpreters for the U.S. military or the government.
Thirteen-year-old Farkhonda, whose father works at Opening Doors, and Ahmad Jan, 11, said that their summers in Kabul were nothing like Camp Nefesh, where they enjoyed an array of activities such as art, drama, dance and ga-ga (a dodgeball-type game from Israel that has become a mainstay in North American Jewish camps).
“I like it,” Ahmad Jan said about camp. “My favorite thing is swimming. I also like making slime.”
Farkhonda said she enjoyed water balloons and the opening and closing circle. “We sing songs and translate the words,” she said, referring to singing “The Rainbow Song” and saying the names of colors in different languages, among them Pashto, her native tongue.
Singing the song was among the shared activities between Camp Nefesh and Camp Shelanu, as was making challah and playing “Pin the kippah on the rabbi.” Just being at B’nai Israel was an eye-opener for many of the campers.
“I [had] learned about Jews in history, but [had] never met one,” Farkhonda said. “Now I see where they pray and how they wear those hats [kippot].”
But this wasn’t a Jewish-themed camp, of course. In fact, to make the kids feel welcome, B’nai Israel provided a space for Farkhonda, Ahmad Jan and their fellow Muslim campers to pray during the day.
The synagogue professionals and teen camp organizers are keenly aware of current events regarding immigrants and refugees. In June, an estimated 1,000 protesters blocked downtown Sacramento streets during a rally against the government’s immigration policies.
“Teens can feel overwhelmed in the world we live in,” Alfi said. “They want to do something to make the world a better place. They have been taught since they were young children about tikkun olam (repairing the world). This is a tangible way to engage in that.”
Added Beckett: “I really hope teens get inspired to help out in the community and put a different light on immigration and refugee issues.”
Will the camp return next summer? As of last week, synagogue officials said they are hoping to bring it back, but couldn’t say for sure.
No matter. Alfi was still basking in the glow of this year’s camp.
“The wall of our building says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ Alfi said. “Every single Jewish family has an immigrant story. We are wandering Jews from Abraham to today. Immigration and refugees are part of the fabric of being Jewish, [and] we want to help others because we know what it’s like to be an immigrant.”