Children are Our Greatest Teachers: Stories from Al-Bustan Camp

This past week at Al-Bustan’s summer camp has been a whirlwind, so much so that I feel I’ve hardly had a second to take a breath, let alone sit, reflect, and blog. So, before I blink and the two weeks have passed, I want to take a moment to commemorate the experience.

Part of the reason I suppose I have struggled to reflect on camp is because I feel I am just getting to know the campers. The diversity of their background is amazing, and their personalities reflect the uniqueness of their experiences. Given the theme of this year’s camp ╸ Home and Identity ╸ we have spent a great deal of time discussing the campers’ families. Suffice to say that there has been a lot to think about, especially as I try to represent the varying experiences of such a widely varied group of individuals.

Joan Baz with campers in Art class
One of the most fascinating things about this week has been the opportunity to see the campers teach this summer’s resident artist, Joan Baz, about the U.S. This is Joan’s first time in the U.S., and, as she readily admits, she arrived with certain preconceptions about the country and its people. And I can hardly imagine a group more appropriate for an introduction to at least what I think of as one of the U.S.’s greatest assets: Its diversity. Among our campers, faculty, and staff are first, second, third, and fourth generation immigrants, from Austria to Sudan, France to the Ukraine, Iraq to Morocco ╸ we even have our own “foreign exchange student” of sorts, a young girl visiting family for the summer from Saudi Arabia! There are also others with longer lineages here in the U.S., or simply those who when asked about “heritage” reference formative experiences in local and domestic places, such Philadelphia, Lancaster County, or Texas. In addition to diversity of heritage, so to speak, children come from a variety of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, diversity that enriches our conversations in vital ways.

A good example can be seen in one of the first exercises we completed at camp. Joan asked each camper to ask someone in his or her family to write down a family recipe as a way of beginning to explore the camp theme. Campers brought in recipes as colorful as they are: Some of the students with parents from the Arab World brought “traditional” recipes for mahshi and makdous (stuffed vegetables), tagine, and falafel; other students brought recipes for home-fried potatoes, bacalao con verdura (salted cod with root veggies), moussaka, a pumpkin roll served at Thanksgiving, corn fritters, baklawa, and pancit bihon (a noodle dish from the Philippines). But even food challenges our stereotypes: A counselor with (self-described) “Bulgarian gypsy” roots told me that her (non-Arab) mother makes hummus almost daily and buys za’atar by the pound. And our camper from Saudi brought in tea crackers and nutella as her recipe, a snack she and surely millions of other children around the globe enjoy!

To make the exercise even more personal, Joan then had the students construct sentences in the format of, “I went looking for home, and I found…” first using the name of the dish and finally substituting the ingredients. (e.g. My grandmother’s holiday brisket; “I went looking for home, and I found my grandma’s brisket and onions.”) The exercise highlighted the sensory experiences involved in cooking and preparing these foods. And it also gave Joan an opportunity to observe some of the multiple, shifting ways in which the campers’ identities and those of their families overlap and intertwine ╸ but also how they differ. It was but one nice, albeit brief and certainly limited, window into the lives of kids in the U.S., one of many that I hope will broaden her perspective on the very questions with which she arrived: On family, heritage, genealogy, and identity.

— Jane Lief Abell
PhD Student in Anthropology
University of Pennsylvania
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