It has long been argued that summer camp is a uniquely American institution. Not only does the US offer the biggest number and widest variety of camps, but some of the earliest ones, like Camp Chocorua in Squam, New Hampshire, were established as early as the 1880s. Although the majority of camps still offer traditional outdoor activities like fishing, hiking, canoeing and archery, more academically inclined students can spend their summers improving their math and science skills at specialized camps.
For the millions of American parents who send their children away for a week or two or even longer, the main objective is to teach their children to be more independent and dexterous and to learn useful skills that they are unlikely to learn otherwise.
Many will argue that acquiring skills like cleaning clothes and cooking, pitching tents and getting accustomed to what are sometimes difficult elements develops character. In fact, the early camps in the US were largely created for this purpose, as families moved away from the labor-intensive rural settings to urban lives with modern amenities that had made life easier.
Of course, the US is one of the biggest tourism destinations in the world. It should not come as a surprise that thousands of international visitors, including many from the Arab world, send their own children to the estimated 7,000 camps all over the US to develop some of these same skills, traits and to acquire this unique experience.
Over the past week, I was in a position to observe a Saudi couple, friends of mine, as they decided to send their three children — a 15-year-old girl and boys aged 13 and 10 — to a camp in West Virginia. Although the family was no stranger to the US, having spent much of the summer here over the past five years or so, this was the first time the children would spend an entire week away from both parents. Not only that, but the father, who remembers fondly his own camping experience when he was about their age many years ago, insisted that there would be no contact with the children — phone, e-mail or otherwise — unless in an emergency. As it happens, that was the policy of the camp, although it apparently encourages the campers to write actual letters to their parents in return for cash awards.
Unlike some of their Saudi peers, the children have an excellent command of English and even attend an international school in Jeddah. In some ways, they are similar to children their age, in others they are not. The 10-year-old is gregarious and naturally sociable and was the most likely to acclimatize and make friends quickly. In fact, before his parents had left the camp grounds after dropping him off, he had already managed to introduce himself to other boys his age, two of whom were overheard arguing how to pronounce his name, Thamer. His older brother, Omar, can be a little quiet at first but his personality quickly shines through with the mere mention of Barcelona’s soccer team or anything related to wrestling, especially superstar John Cena. Like other boys his age, his is very adept at using computers and smartphones. I assumed that like his younger brother, the prospect of canoeing, archery and pitching tents in the forest would be fun activities for him. The biggest question mark was over the girl, Reem. Although sweet and soft-spoken, she — like other teenagers — appears to be yearning to assert her independence and to forge her distinct identity. Reem is also a budding artist who shows such tremendous promise that some of her art teachers in the US have already suggested that her work — frequently motifs of solitary women — could fetch thousands if displayed at a gallery.
One family’s experience of the American summer camp tradition illustrates what is an enriching experience for both visitors and hosts.
First the bad news. Early on during their week-long stay, Thamer and an older boy from Spain exchanged insults that quickly degenerated into attacks against their respective countries. There is no doubt that this is a foreboding scenario for some Saudi parents. The thought that their child would be away and be subjected to harassment or bullying due to their national origin or religion is not a comforting one. However, as is the case in the overwhelming majority of US educational and recreational institutions, the administration was prepared for possible scenarios and acted appropriately. The two boys reconciled the very next day, becoming close friends by the end of the week.
The good news is that the children — all three — yelled “yes” in unison when asked by their mother if they would like to go back to the camp again. As it happened, I was in the car as the children were picked up. At the drop-off spot, Thamer’s eyes welled with tears as his sister embraced one of her counselors for what seemed at least 30 seconds. In the car, Reem could barely contain her joy as she spoke about the new friends she made at the camp, adding that in the course of the week, she had become closer to them than some of her friends back at her school.
Over the next 30 minutes or so, the three children raved about the food at the camp, the counselors and even repeated the chants they learned from a US Army veteran counselor, and asked me whether I knew the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver, which they now know by heart.
In the end, the children’s exuberant reaction and longing to go back to this American camp confirmed many of my assumptions based on my own camping experience many years ago, both as a camper and counselor. Americans are proud of their institutions and traditions and invite all visitors to experience them. For their part, these three Saudi children, like most of their peers who visit the US to study or vacation, also showed that they too are open to new experiences and are eager to better understand and even embrace other cultures. This appears to have been an enriching experience for both visitors and hosts.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.