Maram’s childhood innocence was shattered the day her father came home covered in blood. He had been working for the United States Army, which perplexed the young girl growing up in war-torn Iraq. When Maram asked her father about his job, he refused to share his experience.
Then, one day, she overheard her parents telling friends it was no longer safe to live in her homeland. She later learned that her father had received death threats because of his work with the Americans. So, in 2012, Maram and her parents fled to the United States to find peace.
“My parents spoke English,” said the Muslim refugee, who now lives in the United States with her two daughters, 2 and 5, while waiting for her husband’s papers to be processed. “We heard a lot of good things about America!”
Maram is one of about 50 Muslim refugees who participated in a recent four-week summer Peace Camp in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Located at a local Seventh-day Adventist church, Peace Camp was organized by the Adventist Muslim Friendship Association (AMFA), a ministry started in 2013 by several local Adventists. The organization assists refugee families forced to flee their countries due to violence and political strife.
Gabriela Phillips is one of the founders of AMFA and director of Adventist Muslim Relations for the North American Division (NAD). She said a majority of Muslim refugees living in Chattanooga are from Iraq, while others are from Sudan, Somalia, Syria, and Kurdish areas of Iraq. After three years of helping refugee children during the school year, AMFA launched Peace Camp for Muslim Refugees in 2016 to prevent children from wasting time playing on the computer and watching TV during the summer months, Phillips said. Those who attend are from the same families who participate in the school program, which allows them to spend summer days with their new family of friends and volunteers.
What They Do
One day at Peace Camp, a group of children sat around a carpet for worship. Phillips emphasized God's greatness as, each day, the children learned about one of the 99 names of God. She told them the story of Creation and ended worship with the dua, a prayer to Allah, the Arabic word for God. Later, the children played a game called “Steal the Falafel,” and participated in other team-building activities, under the supervision of the Peace Camp's program coordinator, Ana Bechard, a Southern Adventist University (SAU) graduate. Children were very energetic and eager to learn.
Malak, a 9-year-old girl from Egypt, said her favorite part about Peace Camp was participating in all the games. She and her friend, 9-year-old Fatima, loved the opportunity they had to make friends. Fatima had a smile on her face as she compared her home country to the United States. She and her brother were both born in Iraq. Her father visited her uncle in Malaysia, and soon after, the family joined him. From there they emigrated to the United States.
Now, Fatima loves to swim, something she was not allowed to do back home. She said living in the United States is like nothing she has ever experienced. Back home, most women wore a head covering called a hijab, she said. However, she loved the way Peace Camp volunteers wore their hair in different styles. She said one girl’s “hair is wonderful, like a pumpkin.”
Maram said Peace Camp has been a blessing for her daughter. “She barely spoke any English before we got here,” she said. “She started speaking English more than I knew she could.”
Muslim Mothers Included
Peace Camp not only helps children; it also gives hope to Muslim mothers. Derka, a mother of five, has lived in the U.S. for seven and a half years. She grew up in war-torn Somalia but escaped to Yemen before coming to America. Living in so many different places, learning so many different languages — Somali, Arabic, and English — has given her a perspective that transcends local culture, she said. AMFA has helped her learn about Western culture and American society.
Randa, a mother of three, came to America in 2016 wanting to start a new life filled with new opportunities. Originally from Darfur, Sudan, Randa moved due to constant wars that started more than a decade ago. After only one day in the United States, she moved to Chattanooga to seek a life away from violence. She and her husband have attempted to create a better life for themselves and their children.
After joining the Peace Camp, Randa began thriving in her new environment. She learned the English language, giving her the ability to seek and interview for jobs. Randa and five other friends hope to open a business catering Middle Eastern food. She has learned how to sew and has made purses, clothes, and pillowcases, thanks to AMFA.
Denise Smith is founder and executive director of Peace of Thread, an Atlanta, Georgia-based organization that helped AMFA with the sewing project. She had lived in Lebanon for seven years, and there she met a group of Muslim refugee mothers. When she returned to Atlanta, she launched the program, which teaches the women how to sew purses, wallets, and other items. The women began selling the accessories to help them get on their feet.
Smith said the women, who came from different countries, started out as strangers but eventually became friends, supporting one another in their new environment.
Other volunteers working with the refugees in Chattanooga said they are grateful for the experience. Kyle Plemons, member of a post-collegiate church group, said his favorite aspect of the ministry was the memories he made on a daily basis. He loved interacting with the children and learning about their cultural backgrounds.
Watheq Z., a university student studying in the U.S., volunteered with AMFA for about a month. He worked with the children because he, too, grew up in a refugee camp — one he fled to because as a Palestinian he felt mistreated. “It's not easy to leave your house … for [the] sake of safety,” he said.
As a person with a culturally Arabic background, Watheq has experienced moments of disrespect and hatred. “It’s hard to keep on being positive,” he said, “in an age where Arabs are associated with terrorists.”
He volunteers to change that perspective. “[If these children are depicted as terrorists], their view of their world can be pessimistic,” he explained. “I want to change that.”
And, he does, alongside other volunteers — one child at a time.
High school students attending the 2019 Journalism Academic Summer Camp at Southern Adventist University (SAU) in Collegedale, Tennessee, United States, wrote this article as part of their camp experience. The original story was posted by Southern Tidings.