Philadelphia and Al-Bustan Shaped the Narrative of My Life

H, Happiness: “I feel a burst of happiness when I explore the big city of Philadelphia”.

(Tania from The Immigrant Alphabet)

Over the years the concept of home has changed for me because I’ve moved often, along with  the nature of my Palestinian roots, prompting me to wonder ‘can one person claim a physical location as home’? Or maybe this question seeps into my consciousness when I begin to think that I have no choice. No choice but to accept that home is not a location but bits and pieces of memories. Memories of laughs shared, tears fallen, dreams chased, love, heartbreak, the intermingling of emotion and reality.

First day of Al-Bustan Camp in July, 2002

I left Philadelphia 15 years ago, a fresh graduate from La Salle University and although I’ve returned occasionally to celebrate life successes with friends, or more somber moments of loss,  this summer was the first time I returned for an extended visit. Returning to Al-Bustan after 17 years, no longer a counselor but a parent of 3 participating children in the camp. You see, I was the very first camp counselor at Al-Bustan in the summer of 2002 when it was held at the Morris Arboretum. The camp extended into an organization doing much needed outreach work with Arab-American youth in Northeast High School in a post 9/11 world.  I loved Al-bustan because of the meaningful work it was committed to, the eclectic individuals drawn to its mission and because this was the organization I wish I had growing up. Returning with my own children to the camp was a full-circle moment.

I returned to this complicated City of Brotherly Love to find so much of what I had left behind in tact. The last portion of my time in Philadelphia was spent trying to succeed as a first-generation college student, trying to climb the rungs of the working class. I traveled between my family’s Olney area row home to the Diplomat-in-Residence conferences at La Salle, or UPenn guest-speaker events, all of which helped me glimpse so much of the possibility available – if I just worked hard enough. Driving home from these intellectually rich circles I was awoken not only to the physical differences between each space, but also the access to opportunity each space represents. The struggle is still pretty real, apparent with every step taken in this city then and now.

However, this complicated truth of a city has made me so much of who I am today, rooted in the hard working ethic of an immigrant family and always seeking community for comfort and support. Preservation of the Arabic language, art and culture at the core of Al-Bustan’s mission was created at a crucial time in our nation’s history. In essence, to achieve dialogue through expressions of art which is still relevant to our world today.  At a time when it may seem that dialogue is breaking down everywhere, deconstructing instead of constructing, there are pockets of hope. Al-Bustan continues to serve as that pocket of hope in Philly and for those of us cheering from afar. I am so proud to claim the title of first Al-Bustan camp counselor! It is because of that title, and the work that followed that prompted my lifelong commitment to youth. The only way to a better future is to offer a vision of what is possible to those who may not otherwise see.  Hazami had that vision 17 years ago and I’m so glad she did.

Ahlam Yassin

Ahlam Yassin is a high school social studies teacher. She received her BA in political science from Philly’s own La Salle University, her MA in Educational Leadership from Montclair State University and her teaching certification somewhere in between. Ahlam can be reached at, or for more of her musings visit

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