Pittsburgh Summer Camp Introduces Refugees To U.S. Culture

Jul 27, 2017
Originally published on July 27, 2017 5:47 pm
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Summer camp is, of course, an American tradition. It can be weird for some young people who come to this country as refugees. From member station WESA, Virginia Alvino Young reports from a day camp in Pittsburgh that specializes in acclimating recent arrivals.

VIRGINIA ALVINO YOUNG, BYLINE: On a humid Friday afternoon, students are practicing soccer and pushing each other on the swings. Some only speak Swahili, some Arabic. But they all understand how to play. This is the Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment Program, or PRYSE, and it's built just for them. Working on English is a big focus, so each morning starts with classroom time - something some of the kids have never experienced in America. Today they're writing in their journals and practicing writing sentences by playing the game Two Truths and a Lie. Jackson Uwimana reads his lines to the group who have to guess the lie.

JACKSON: I read it louder, guys.

UNINDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. Thank you.

JACKSON: I love red color. I like to play football. I like to go to school.

YOUNG: Turns out his favorite color is actually blue. It's Hamadi Hamadi's second year at PRYSE. The 15-year-old says they don't have summer camp in his home country.

HAMADI: Kenya - when I was there, my family was poor. They don't have nothing, no food. So we decided to come to America. We came to America when I was 10 years old.

YOUNG: Hamadi is naturally quiet. But his counselors say he's more extroverted this year and even branching out, making friends beyond just the group of East African kids.

HAMADI: They help you, like, how to, like, talk aloud like that. Sometimes I feel shy to talk.

YOUNG: Jenna Baron says improving communication is key. She's the executive director of the nonprofit which runs the camp. She says the political climate in the U.S. makes it even more urgent to create a space specifically for these kids to express themselves and their needs, something usually beyond the capacity of English as a Second Language facilitators in schools.

JENNA BARON: I think ESL teachers really look to us to provide a fun space that's not high-stakes and that leaves a lot of opportunity for kids to make friends with other kids who are having similar experiences.

YOUNG: Baron says a lot of refugee kids miss out on extracurricular programs. Besides the language gap, many kids have responsibilities at home like taking care of younger siblings. In most ways, these are just average kids, but they often come from places of war and violence. Counselors are trained to deal with kids who may have experienced trauma, and the camp takes extra care to create a stable environment.

BARON: We have a list of which counselors will be on site that day so they're not surprised or concerned about where people are.

YOUNG: Baron says practically everything is new to these kids, but PRYSE helps ensure a smooth transition into the next school year. They become familiarized with American foods, learn how to follow a structured lesson plan, and even how to navigate public transportation to camp, things that Mbavumoja Hussein from Kongo now loves to do.

MBAVUMOJA: And I come here, I have so much fun. And next summer, I'm going to come here.

YOUNG: And after all, having fun is what summer camp is all about. For NPR News, I'm Virginia Alvino Young in Pittsburgh.

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