One July morning, my father packed my brother, myself and our lunch boxes into our maroon Chrysler station wagon and drove us to the Pakistan Association of Quebec's (P.A.Q.) annual summer camp for kids. I was nine years old.
I was dreading it.
The year before, hardly anyone had come to the P.A.Q. camp, and I figured this year would be no different.
But this time, I was pleasantly surprised. When we got to the gym where most of the camp's activities were to be held, the place was bustling with energy as kids, my age, older and younger, ran around, yelled, and climbed rope.
That was probably the best summer of my childhood. While the camp wasn't always completely Islamic (we fought, some of us swore, even if the counselors told us not to), we did pray the afternoon Dhur prayer together and learn a little bit about Islam. All of the kids were Muslim.
Why was it memorable? It wasn't so much what we did. It was the fact that we did it together.
Whether it was being forced to memorize Pakistan's national anthem (Pak sur zameen Shaad Baad-see I still remember!), play scatter dodgeball, have water fights in the public swimming pool, or get yelled at by our eighteen to twenty-something counselors, we had a blast.
How often is it that you get to spend almost all of your time with Muslims your age? For me, that was probably the first time ever that I had almost daily exposure to over 20 Muslim kids during the weekdays.
I was one of the very few Muslims in my public school. The P.A.Q. summer camp was the first time I interacted almost daily with so many Muslim kids outside of the social events and dinners with family friends we attended or hosted on most weekends.
If anything, this is one of the main reasons any parent should send their child or children to a Muslim summer camp, be it for two months or two days: the need to be with Muslim kids their age, especially if they attend public school.
Mind you, not any camp will do. There should be counselors and administrators conscious and practicing of Islam, as well as being able to handle kids with patience. Otherwise, the exposure to other kids or bad counselors can work the other way, causing more harm than good.
But the primary camp experience for kids is not so much what you're taught, but the fact that you're with others of the same age and similar background when you're taught. In some cases, this cements the learning experience and reinforces it.
I didn't really start attending specifically Muslim youth camps until I was eighteen.
These camps were even better than the P.A.Q.'s. Everyone was required to dress and behave appropriately, with each other and the opposite sex, and we prayed and ate together, along with socializing and playing sports.
What was crucial was that the “weirdness” of Islam was taken away at these camps. I was no longer one of the few visible Muslims in my school. I was a Muslim amongst many.
As well, the Muslims who attended these camps were not just “other people at the camp"-they were my brothers and sisters in faith.
I know of a sister whose entire life orientation changed with a one-week summer Muslim youth camp. She went from trying drugs and smoking to reconnecting with Islam.
While the lectures most probably had an effect, it was no doubut the insulated environment of the camp, free of cigarettes, drugs, overt sexual messages and behavior, as well as the focus on prayer, Islamic etiquette and behavior, along with the brother- and sisterhood practiced by those who attended, that probably made this young woman reconsider how she was living her life.
The Muslim summer camp is one of the most memorable of all childhood experiences.
Reward your kids with a good one this summer.
Photo Attribution - Shazron - http://www.flickr.com/photos/shazron/524216269/