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July 18, 2008

“I Can’t Wait ‘til Ayandeh”

The Future of the Iranian American community

Since the inception of the Iranian Alliances Across Borders’ Camp Ayandeh, a summer program for Iranian-American high-schoolers, campers have left eager for more. For the past three years, Camp Ayandeh’s warmth and excitement have won over a group that can be difficult to woo: teenagers. But what’s really special is that this process takes place during the course of only one week. For many it is not only the next year of camp that becomes a source of eager anticipation; campers leave truly reinvigorated about the future—and about their Iranian heritage and Iranian-American identity.

Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB) was founded by Iranian-American college students in 2003 and its mission is to “strengthen the Iranian diaspora community and empower its youth.” Before Camp Ayandeh began in 2006, IAAB had sponsored a range of activities including conferences and essay contests for young Iranian-Americans, but IAAB staff soon realized they wanted to target the youth in a new and unique way.

“IAAB wanted to address the issue of strengthening the community and we decided that without a strong base it will be impossible. And we realized that the base that we were talking about, the base of our community’s future, is the youth today,” Sherry Hakimi, IAAB’s Public Relations Coordinator told NIAC. “Thus, Camp Ayandeh was born, and thrives to this day.”

So what is it that happens over the course of just one week that generates such enthusiasm? According to Sherry, activities include the annual Ta’arof Tournament, cultural booths showcasing Persian culture, nightly recreations of Persian celebrations (Norooz and Shabe Yalda, for example), Vasati (Persian dodgeball) and bezan-o-beregahs (dancing). “Our campers – all of varying ages – showed remarkable maturity, thoughtfulness and team cooperation as they participated in group trust-building activities, discussed the meaning of hyphenated identity, and went through active listening exercises,” Sherry said of the other camp activities. Rounding out the mix are sessions on college preparation and leadership skills as well as feature presentations by guest speakers.

If there is any doubt about the success of the program, the campers’ words speak for themselves. At the end of Camp Ayandeh 2007, campers were asked to complete the sentence, “Camp Ayandeh is…” Their responses ranged from “Camp Ayandeh is filled with the incredible sense of unity, happiness, love and KOO KOO SABZI” to “It’s what I look forward for 359 days, only to attend it for 6” to “Camp Ayandeh is being Persian…and having a hell of a lot of fun doing it.” Their responses varied, but the feelings they had were very much the same: campers had fallen in love with the program.

At Camp Ayandeh 2008, things were no different. From day one, June 22, the campers hit the ground running, and until the last day of camp on June 28 they didn’t stop to catch their breath—just the way they like it. This year, IAAB invited Alex Patico, co-founder of NIAC and member of NIAC’s advisory board, to be a guest speaker, an invitation he eagerly accepted:

“ ‘Culture Club’ was the name of my hour-long talk (I have worked in the field of intercultural relations for 30 years and hold a Master’s in that field). In my talk, I began by distinguishing between what is often referred to by the word “culture” — for example, the art and literature of Persia — and a much broader, more diffuse concept. We talked about the “big questions” and challenges that all human beings must face: how to cope with survival, lack and loss, what separates one person or group from another, what can be used to unite us — and the resources we have at our disposal to do that.

We discussed the various elements of culture, including non-verbals such as eye-contact, movements and gestures, sound and language, and core values. The group was invited to contrast “typical” American values with “typical” Iranian values — taking care to recognize the huge variations that occur within any culture.

Each camper was asked to say one role that they played. Answers included: daughter, brother, musician, writer, camper, Iranian-American and a host of others. Realizing that each culture treats each of these roles in slightly different ways illustrated the complexity of inter-cultural interaction — and the richness of living as a bi-cultural person.

The seventy campers gave me their full attention and participated with enthusiasm. During meals and breaktimes, they were eager to sit down and talk with me about a host of subjects. After my 22 or so hours with them it was very hard to say goodbye. But, as IAAB’s camp blogger said, leaving is “not ‘goodbye.’ It is ‘hello’ — hello to the new friendships that will only grow stronger.”

Want to learn more? Check out this Washington Post article and youtube video about Camp Ayandeh 2007.

Show your support for IAAB and Camp Ayandeh! To donate, click here.

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