Sacramento summer camp for refugee children takes to Zoom to continue programming

There will be no opportunity to crowd into a pool or tour Capitol Park in downtown Sacramento this year for the participants of Camp Nefesh, a free Sacramento-area camp for refugee children ages 5 to 17.

As with other area summer camps, social distancing measures brought on by the pandemic have altered Camp Nefesh’s plans. Yet, while other camps have suspended their plans indefinitely or announced a reduction in the number of participants to conform with distancing standards, Camp Nefesh has made the transition online, expanding programming in the meanwhile. On Wednesday, Camp Nefesh began the first day of its third camp year via Zoom, with children now turning to greet their counselors not from a seat a few feet away at B’nai Israel Congregation, but from the other side of a screen.

Through the month of July, the predominantly teen volunteer-led camp will offer programming to almost 250 refugee children, many of whom have only recently moved with their families to the United States. Through a program of “theme days,” games and English-learning activities, the camp provides a critical opportunity for participants to learn more about American customs and culture.

“We want to try to maintain a certain sense of normalcy during this time,” said Camp Director Lexi Nicodemus. “Part of that normalcy is the camp experience.”

The number of children participating in the camp has grown every year. This year, the program celebrated another landmark: a new partnership with Elk Grove Unified School District, which more than doubled the program’s size to more than 200 students.

So, when it became apparent that the pandemic would extend into the summer, camp organizers moved to preserve the camp by moving it online. It was a quick decision, said Samantha Marcus, camp staffing director and a McClatchy High School student. Counselors were eager to continue a camp they valued and knew students were excited about.

To prepare for the camps’ shift in setting, counselors, most all of whom are local high school students, spent two recent mornings stuffing boxes to the brim with materials for students to use inside and outside of camp activities – word searches for English practice, colored pencils for drawing instruction, twist balloons for a balloon animal tutorial. Beads, jump ropes, crayons, Oreos and composition books went in, too.

“We want to make it … family-based, too.” said Marcus on the diversity of work sheets and trinkets in each box. “So, we’re giving them a mix of everything.”

As the camp heads to homes, she explained, counselors expect siblings and other family members will join in.

After filling each box, counselors included a letter in either Pashto, Dari, Spanish, Tagalog, Farsi, or Mandarin, the various languages spoken by family members of camp participants.

Camp organizers have worked to smooth the transition to an online format. To continue to accommodate the broad range of English abilities among the campers and provide similar activities to past years, counselors created video tutorials on drawing and how to make balloon animals so students can return to review segments.

While the camp can no longer offer field trips or swim days, founder Lucy Backett said the program will rely on its core. The English-language help that parents appreciate has remained. As have many of the popular theme days where students solve problems as a group or learn more about Fourth of July, Halloween and other U.S holidays.

Regardless, demand for the camp has remained high in a city that has received a steady flow of refugees each year.

A majority of camp participants are Afghani, with parents who immigrated to the United States using a Special Immigration Visa, due to their involvement with U.S military or other foreign service operations. Most campers have only resided in this country for a brief period of time before attending camp.

The Afghani refugee population has grown in Sacramento to the point that Elizabeth Stanley, resettlement director at refugee-assistance group Opening Doors, said that new accepted refugee applicants looking to be placed in Sacramento already have a “link,” be it a family member or friend, to the existing Afghani refugee community. Many settle in Arden-Arcade due to the high percentage of rental housing there.

One of these refugees, Hamidullah Hamidy, a resettlement caseworker at Opening Doors, enrolled his then 7-year-old son, Muhammad Mustafa, in Camp Nefesh last year, during the summer break of his kindergarten year. (Hamidy’s son attends an elementary school in San Juan Unified School Districy, which has a year-long school schedule.)

Hamidy said his son had little exposure to American youth up to that point.

“I wanted my son to become familiar with American culture,” said Hamidy.

Outside of school, Muhammad spent most of his time under the care of his mother, in accordance with his family’s culture, a circumstance that benefited his retention of Dari but hindered his acquisition of English.

As a result, at the point when Muhammad enrolled in Camp Nefesh, he shied away from participating in English-language conversation, even after four years of living in the United States.

Muhammad quickly grew an eagerness for camp and eventually began to lose his shyness around Americans. He also gained a confidence in basic English. Now, Hamidy said, his son greets people he meets with “Hi.”

“I tell the other families I work with about the camp,” said Hamidy.

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