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Empowering Iranian American Youth: The Camp Ayandeh Story

by ARASH KARAMI

14 Aug 2011 00:07Comments
0607ent_iranian1.jpgA conversation with cofounder Narges Bajoghli.

[ spotlight ] "In ten years, we may not even be able to talk about an Iranian community unless we make a concerted effort to educate our youth," Narges Bajoghli, cofounder of Iranian Alliances Across Borders' (IAAB) Camp Ayandeh program, says to me over the phone.

Concern for the future of the Iranian diaspora and fear of complete cultural assimilation is common among the older members of the community. Over the past 30 years, Iranians have brought the culture of their homeland with them to their new host countries and endeavored to maintain their traditions. But the soft-spoken 28-year-old Bajoghli (pictured standing), I've come to find out, is not necessarily as concerned as the elder generation is with the retention of venerable identities and customs. Instead, she appears to have channeled her concern through an inspiring dedication and commitment to what the future of the Iranian diaspora can be.

Her journey started in London just as the U.S.-led war against Iraq was beginning. Bajoghli and IAAB cofounder Nikoo Paydar (pictured seated) noticed "there was a lot of activity amongst the Middle Eastern community in reaction to the war." This inspired them to organize a conference in 2004 when they returned to the States. However, "instead of inviting experts," Bajoghli says, "we invited artists and students and people who were pushing boundaries."

In response to the enthusiasm generated by the conference and inquiries as to what would come next, Paydar and Bajoghli formed the IAAB to address the various "gaps," as Bajoghli calls them, in the Iranian American community. She explains, "There were no organizations discussing what it means to be an Iranian American beyond some of the [language] schools and Nowruz shows."

This is where Camp Ayandeh came to play a leading role in IAAB's efforts. It is a summer leadership program for Iranian American high school students now run largely by former campers. Camp Ayandeh -- literally, Camp Future -- started with 19 students. It is now entering its seventh year with more than 130.

Part of Ayandeh's success is that it has created an environment for young Iranian Americans to explore their potential through challenging and thought-provoking activities. "We want to give them the tools," Bajoghli says, to "define their [own] sense of being an Iranian American." Thanks to Camp Ayandeh, the range of those definitions is expanding with a new generation of bright and motivated young Iranian Americans each year. Via email, Bajoghli told me more about the camp, its purpose, and yes, its future.

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How did the idea to start Camp Ayandeh come about? Did anything from your own background spark the desire to begin this?

The idea for Camp Ayandeh came about during an IAAB (Iranian Alliances Across Borders) staff meeting eight years ago when we were identifying the gaps in our community. Everyone on IAAB's staff at the time was below the age of 22 and we were talking about what we, as second-generation Iranian Americans, wished we had growing up, and what we believed the community needed in order to grow. We talked about how one of the advantages that our peers at our universities have is a strong preexisting regional and national network that is developed at summer camps and sustained through university conferences. At that staff meeting, we also talked about the many struggles that each of us had growing up in relation to our Iranian identity. We knew that by creating a space where young Iranians could engage with one another, we would be taking a fundamental step in empowering the youth in our community.

This is a one-week program. Can you give a breakdown of the various activities students are involved in?

Through cultural, historical, and artistic workshops, community-building activities, and critical discussions, Camp Ayandeh assists students in identifying and developing responses to the issues they see affecting young people in the Iranian American community. This includes working together to interrogate negative images, construct more humanizing narratives, and practice various forms of leadership.

The Iranian American community is a diverse ethnic and religious group. What steps are taken to establish a sense of cohesion and togetherness?

Since our inception, IAAB has been very adamant [about] recognizing the diverse and vibrant nature of the Iranian American community. This is a characteristic that IAAB represents, embraces, and celebrates in its ethos and in each of its programs. One concrete step we take at Camp Ayandeh is that we teach our students about the incredible diversity in the Iranian community, and we encourage them to use the term "Iranian" or "Iranian American" rather than "Persian" or "Persian American," given the fact that not all Iranians are ethnically Persians. We have workshops that teach dances from all corners of Iran and lead discussions with the students about the religious diversity of Iranians. IAAB's staff also represents a wide cross section of the Iranian American population, and we work with the students to recognize and understand the various differences in our community. In essence, Camp Ayandeh invites young Iranian Americans to reflect on their shared history and their place in the Iranian diaspora, while working to build solidarity across difference.

Approximately how many students join each other, and what are some of the reasons parents send their high school students to this program?

We have around 130 Iranian American students who joined Camp Ayandeh this summer. We started out with 19 campers in 2006, as parents were understandably nervous about sending their children to an overnight camp run by 23-year-olds. The year after that, we tripled the number of campers, and have grown exponentially ever since. We have worked hard over the past six years to build strong ties with parents. Parents send their children to Camp Ayandeh because they trust us, because they believe in what is taught at Camp Ayandeh, because they see the very tangible differences in their children year after year, and because they sense that for us, their children come first. We are not in this because "youth" has become a buzzword recently, or because there are foundation grants available to create such programming. We started this program as youth ourselves, because we deeply believe in youth empowerment, and because we want to see our young people pushing the boundaries, asking the tough questions, being confident, and shaking up the status quo. Parents tell us that when their children come back home from Ayandeh, they are more confident, have a stronger sense of self, have a deeper understanding of what it means to be Iranian American, have developed lifelong friendships and have the necessary skills to lead both inside and outside of the Iranian diaspora community. As an organization that privileges youth, we emphasize and work to cultivate the potential of every young person. That's why parents send their children to this Camp Ayandeh.

One of Camp Ayandeh's goals is to help the Iranian American community establish ties with other communities, such as the Arab American community. How exactly is this done and why do you believe this is important?

The Iranian American community is a young one. There are many immigrant and diaspora communities that have come before us and in order to grow into a strong community, we have to learn from the struggles, challenges, and victories of others. As such, IAAB aims to situate our Iranian American experiences in a broader historical and global context, generating dialogue with other immigrant and diasporic communities. Through all of IAAB's programs, including Camp Ayandeh, students engage with the rich histories of communities of color in the United States as well as the struggles of immigrant and diasporic communities the world over.

In order to build solidarity with other communities, we have to know who we are as a community. We felt that the strongest sense of what the Iranian American community is and will be is evident at Camp Ayandeh. Through Camp Ayandeh's curriculum, we encourage students to access and take control of their narratives, to learn their histories, and to affirm their transcultural identities. Thus, we decided that at this year's camp, in line with IAAB's history of pushing the lines and breaking taboos within our community, we chose to engage with the Arab American community, which has a long history in the United States. We wanted to confront the deep divisions and racism in our community against Arabs and to recognize the long-standing ties between the Arab and Iranian communities for centuries. Furthermore, both of our communities face serious challenges since 9/11 that can only be overcome through conscious efforts to work together. IAAB strives to teach our students that collaborative work is essential to move the Iranian American community forward.

In seeking to build this solidarity with the Arab American community, we invited numerous guest speakers to Camp Ayandeh -- Professor Moustafa Bayoumi, the Egyptian American author of How Does it Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America; Yousef Baker, an Iranian Iraqi sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and Omar Offendum, a Syrian American hip-hop artist -- and held workshops with the campers around issues of solidarity building and working in collaboration with other communities.

Camp Ayandeh clearly is rooted in the idea of establishing bonds for these young Iranian American that will last into the future, so it's forward looking in its objective. However, the retention of our history seems to be a major focus of Camp Ayandeh. Do you believe there is a paradox, or perhaps conflict, between these goals that needs to be approached delicately?

We strongly believe that in order to know where we're going, we have to know where we came from. History is essential to the development of the future, so I don't see any paradox to teaching history. However, I must clarify that the "retention of our history" is not a major focus of Camp Ayandeh, as stated in the question. In fact, we teach our students that the discipline of history is always an interpretive one and that they are very much active players in interpreting their histories as well as in creating their histories.

There is no one "our history" that is taught at camp. There is a workshop on Iranian histories as well as one on American histories, with a specific focus on the histories of immigrant communities and communities of color in the United States. As Iranian Americans, we are products of the histories of both societies, thus Ayandeh's emphasis on including both workshops in its curriculum. Yet, these workshops are taught in the style of a college seminar, where facts are few and far between, and campers are encouraged to discuss and debate.

The staff consists of former campers. What draws these students back? Is it part of Camp Ayandeh's attraction that it creates a sense of giving back?

As the years have progressed, many of Camp Ayandeh's counselors and staff are now former campers. In this year's Camp Ayandeh staff of 36 individuals, 23 were former campers. That's an incredible testament to the power and impact of Camp Ayandeh, I believe. Overall, we have an extremely high retention rate at Camp Ayandeh. We do a lot of work with the students about what it means to give back to their communities. The IAAB staff also mentors the campers throughout the year, helping them with their college applications, writing them letters of recommendation, helping them get internships. So, the counselors who are former campers have experienced what it means to be mentored, to be cared about, what it means to have someone just a few years older than you helping you learn the ropes. They understand the importance of that kind of mentorship and they want to give back in the same way to younger campers.

I think another answer to your question though, that is just as important as the first, is that former campers come back as counselors to Camp Ayandeh because we really try to foster a sense of family. The students leave with a feeling that they've just gained 129 new family members.

Through the myriad of ways that Ayandeh has affected and changed their lives, former campers return year after year as counselors and members of Ayandeh staff because they know that in that space, they can express themselves fully, learn from one another, and have room to grow.

Camp Ayandeh is essentially a "leadership"-type camp, correct? Iranian Americans have excelled in leadership positions in business, law, and medicine, yet they have been conspicuously absent from politics and public office. Is political engagement and a need to serve and give back to America a part of the program in any respect?

For us, leaders are speakers, organizers, facilitators, and mentors, as well as writers, artists, thinkers, educators, historical and everyday actors. Yes, leaders embody a sense of responsibility and service towards others, but we do not try to mold our students into any specific type of leader. We talk to them about the importance of having formal representation in politics in the United States, but we also talk to them about the importance of having strong leaders in the arts, in the nonprofit sector, in the entertainment industry, in journalism and media, etc. We take great pains to create a very strong group of counselors and staff at Camp Ayandeh from all walks of life for the campers to learn from. There is no one path to leadership and no one way to be a leader. By having leaders in a variety of sectors in the country, our community will move forward. Ultimately at Camp Ayandeh and in all of IAAB's programs, we seek to develop a safe and supportive environment for young people to make sense of their shared experiences, to stretch into new roles and practices, and to become leaders in the fields that they choose.

Camp Ayandeh is now entering its seventh year, which essentially makes it a successful program. What do you believe are the main ingredients that have contributed to the success of the camp?

A great deal of thought, years of planning, and deep dedication and commitment to youth development. Before starting Camp Ayandeh, I spent one year meeting with camp directors of all communities across America, observing different camps, going to youth leadership programs to learn what they do well. We talked to educators and practitioners, and only after all that research did we begin to sit down to start creating Camp Ayandeh. Throughout the years, we've had amazing teams of young people working to create Camp Ayandeh, and each team has introduced new elements to the curriculum and to the culture of Camp Ayandeh that have made it the success that it is today. In essence, I think Camp Ayandeh is successful because it is a place that is fun, loving, safe; it is a space where we push the students to learn new things, where we challenge them, and above all, where we hold very high expectations of them. Even though they are at a summer camp, we engage them in tough conversations, we present them with challenging topics, and we have a ton of fun doing it all.

What are your future goals regarding Camp Ayandeh?

IAAB is in the process of creating an Educational Institute, which will house Camp Ayandeh, Camp Javan (IAAB's leadership camp for middle school students, starting this year), the Student Summit (a leadership program for university students), and more. Camp Ayandeh, specifically, will expand into a summer institute, which means it will be longer in duration and will include an expanded curriculum.

Photo by Jonathan Timmes, Northern Virginia Magazine.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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