It is a part of every Western youngster's life to go camping either with school or with family and friends over holidays and summer breaks. Unfortunately within the Muslim community, children are often not permitted to attend school camps due to the usually very un-Islamic activities which take place on camping trips. Even camps run by Islamic schools sometimes fail to maintain proper Islamic conduct and behavior. What we are left with are a fresh batch of disappointed tweens and teens who just picked up one more reason to dislike their religion and envy their not-so-God-conscious friends and classmates.
Unfortunately, the most that Muslim parents do to make up for their children missing out on such camps entailing "major life experiences", as the youth describe them, is sending the kids off to a one-night sleepover at grandma's house or with the cousins who are still in diapers.
So is camp really of any benefit, or are Muslim parents rightfully saving themselves a few hundred dollars every year by not letting their children attend camp? The main thing to realize is that being in any environment for a few consecutive days and nights surrounded by a bunch of same-aged friends and who-knows-what kind of activities has a big impact on campers as they are influenced by their company and surroundings. And sometimes, these influences may just stick for life.
But who said influence is bad? If it's the right type of company and the right type of influence and surroundings, then a proper Islamic camp could just provide every Muslim youth with that gentle push towards the right direction. So now to the golden question, where do we find such a camp? The answer: make one!
All it takes to make it possible is a small initiative, active older youth and a few wise elders organizing the camp, the resident scholar's guidance, the parents' and Islamic center's support, the thought of the countless Muslim youngsters who have been deprived of camp all their life (and their almost obnoxious excitement once the camp plans leak into the community), and of course, du'as!
The Panjtan Society Youth Group in Melbourne, Australia, recently organized a very successful camp for the younger members of the community. For those who are looking to organize a camp for tweens and teens in their communities, the following are a few tips, as well as feedback received from the participants and volunteers:
Plan the camp for a time when everyone is on break. This includes the campers, older youth volunteers, and supervising adults. Ensure that the camp starts at a time which is convenient for parents to drop off and collect their children. Perhaps sometime in the afternoon or evening (as parents may be at work), but definitely do not request campers to arrive too early in the morning, or else they will most probably miss their Fajr!
Considering the great amount of time and effort being put into organising the camp along with the hope to positively influence the Muslim campers, two days and two nights should be the minimum length of the camp (this is recommended for a first time camp), and probably no longer than four nights and days. Even two nights may seem too long and daunting to the community and parents at first, but by the end of it, they will be requesting the next camp to be twice as long!
This may seem a bit un-camp like, but basing the camp at the actual Islamic center can be a lot of fun and quite practical! Because Muslim parents will always be so caring, loving, and worrying, (Alhamdulillah!) it's best to do everything possible to give them peace of mind while their children are attending their "first camp ever!" The mosque is a location which all parents are familiar with. Parents should be welcomed to "drop by" for an hour or so if they start to miss their kids too much. (And surprisingly, this happens!) Additionally, by basing the camp at the Islamic center, the campers are actually given time to "connect" with their spiritual home, and hence in the future, they will be more willing to attend regular religious programs.
In order to maintain proper Islamic etiquette at all times, it is necessary to ensure that girls and boys camps run on completely separate days. Islamic centers may sometimes be tight on space, and even if your community has a spacey luxurious one, the camps should still be kept separate for the sake of precaution. Additionally, it will help reinforce to our younger generation the concept of avoiding unnecessary interaction with non-Mahrams. Some may argue that this doesn't provide them with practical experience of how to Islamically maintain ourselves while with non-Mahrams; however, the majority of un-segregated, youth-lead events hardly ever have Hijab and non-Mahram interaction police ready to caution us when we behave in not-so-Halal ways.
Now for the fun stuff! Possible outings and activities that both boys and girls enjoy include laser tag, bowling, paintballing, hiking, male- and female-only swim sessions, etc. (As group bookings need to be made for such outings, it's very easy to make the experience a more Halal one by requesting that music to be turned off at venues and bathrooms be equipped with washing supplies and made available for Wudhu if necessary, etc.) If these activities are not an option, then the zoo and museum are places which nobody ever gets tired of visiting. Throw in a bit of proper exercise by holding a soccer or football match for the boys at a park or hire out a gym for girls to play basketball or other competitive indoor sports.
"With all these outings, the best thing was that the young campers learned how to stay away from the Internet for three days!" said Kazim Raza, a senior youth volunteer at the Melbourne camp.
Eye-Opening and Practical Learning Experiences
Keep a balance between outings that will let the campers have a good time and outings which will actually benefit them. Take them to the Muslim graveyard, ask them to do Du'a for the deceased, and tell them a few death-related Islamic stories. Camper Muhammad Ahsan commented on the graveyard experience at the Melbourne camp: "We realised how there is no guarantee of life, and that we could have our lives taken away from us any moment. So we should change ourselves to become more like how our Prophet and the Holy Imams wants us to be."
Ask them to describe what living in the inside of a grave until the Day of Judgment would feel like. Teach them how to identify the direction of the Qibla by looking at a grave. Let them sit on the ground and learn to do Tayyamum. Take them to a park and allow them to pray, hence helping build their confidence when it comes to praying in public! Take them for a meal at a Muslim-owned, Halal restaurant, and take this opportunity to have a short Fiqh quiz on Halal, Haram, and the Taharat and Najasat of food. Also, teach them about boycotting Zionist products, and take your own drinks if the restaurant only serves boycotted beverages such as Coca Cola.
It is very important to ensure that all outings are scheduled such that prayers are always performed on time: either arrangements to pray are made during the outing, or the group returns to the campsite in time for prayers.
Youth-Related and Religious Discussions
Keep lecturing to a minimum, and have more group discussions. Discuss topics which are both relevant to all young people and also Islamic practices which directly relate to them, such as friendship, respecting parents, school, music, interactions with non-Mahrams, Hijab, praying, Taqleed, online safety, etc. Let youth say everything that is on their minds, and try to ask questions to figure out what's on their minds. This way, you will know what issues matter to them and to address them in the future. Use PowerPoint presentations and clips from YouTube and ShiaTV to help facilitate the talks and keep things interesting. For some reason, discussions held during the evenings in an informal environment (let them lie on the floor or sit on beanbags) tend to be more successful.
Religious Activities and Demonstrations
Movie time! Turn of the lights, make popcorn, and plug in the movie 313 on the projector. When it finishes, link it to a discussion on Taqleed and what we need to do in order for Imam Mahdi (may Allah hasten his reappearance) to return. Before bed, introduce the campers to the concepts of Ziyarat and Du'as (Ziyarat Ashura, Du'a Tawassul, Hadith Kisa, etc., all with English translations). Fit in 10-15-minute slots for proper Wudhu demonstrations, pointing out what incorrect actions invalidate the ablution (for example, washing the face or arms upwards instead of downwards, taking extra water to do the wiping steps, etc.). After they have done the hard work with learning about Wudhu, get the girls doing some yoga or give the boys a game with water balloons to keep things fun.
Throw in worksheets here and there throughout the camp days based on discussions and demonstrations which have already taken place. Debates and getting the campers to give speeches on topics like "how to explain Islamic beliefs to non-Muslims and non-Shias" are also popular. Have quizzes, crosswords, or fill-in-the-blanks ready for most topics. Activity sheets while being transported is a great use of time. Melbourne camp youth organizer Raza Abbas said: "The campers experienced a few days in a completely Halal and religious environment with other fellow Muslim youth. They were praying the five daily prayers in congregation, teaching them the importance of praying on time. The campers also recited Du'as after each meal, realizing the benefits of thanking Allah for the everyday bounties He has blessed us with, which we often forget. The youngsters also recited Du'a Faraj before bed, teaching them the significance of remembering the Holy Imam of Our Time."
Prizes and Show Bags
For every competition, activity sheet, and discussion, have prizes. Chocolates usually work best for discussions, as you'll need many to give out, but have bigger prizes for competitions such as soccer balls, jewelery sets, stationary sets, gift cards, or perhaps even Islamic books. Show bags are something to give to the campers as a farewell gesture so they remember a few things from the camp. Besides chocolates, candy, and the usual high-in-sugar foods that get every tween and teen excited, put in things like a laminated list of Zionist companies to boycott, and tell them to stick it on their fridge. Put in a few Du'a and Ziyarat booklets with English translation. Give them little fold-away bamboo prostration pads to keep in their wallets. A DVD with lectures from popular scholars and Qur'an, Latimiyya, Nauha, and Manqabat recitations would be great too.
Have a variety of things in the show bags besides the Islamic stuff. Throw in discount vouchers for community businesses, a healthy food pyramid, a toy or two, a recipe of how to make play dough, etc. Girls can have scarves too. Most importantly, put in the website/email address/Facebook sites/online forum contact details of the youth group or camp organizers so they can keep in touch. (Of course, the budget of each show bag will be the determinant of what goes in the show bags; however, looking for sponsors or asking people to donate a few scarves or Du'a booklets is usually enough to bring the cost down.)
Organizers and Volunteers
Now to the gems which will make this camp possible! Get a team of active youth together to start with, and throw the camp idea on the table. Decide on the time, length, and main outings of the camp. (Everything else can be worked out after.) Run this past the Islamic center's board, the resident scholar, and the youth group supervising adults (if they exist). Put together an information pack and distribute this among parents. (Don't get too caught up with trying to individually ask parents what activities are suitable and when the camp should be, etc., because it's impossible to satisfy everyone.)
Once the word is out and youth have expressed interest in the camp, then call for volunteers who can help out with the logistics of food delivery, transport, last-minute grocery shopping, etc. Find full-time adult volunteers who will be present at all times of the camp, and then there's the part-time volunteers who can only make it for the day trips or night stays. Make sure that volunteers who will guide the discussions with the youth are pious and reputable individuals who are strict in performing their religious obligations. It goes without saying that these people will bond very well and become extremely attached to the youth, and will therefore be in a position to give them advice on all matters religious and otherwise.
The Religious Scholar's Approval
Essential to the success of any camp or Islamic youth-related activity is the wisdom and advice of the resident scholar. If there's no full-time scholar, then have the part-time or visiting ones to help out. When touching sensitive topics such as pre-marital relationships, music, online etiquette, etc., it's good to have an outline of the discussions and presentations looked at by the religious leader of the community. When Fiqh is being taught, the content should be preapproved by a scholar or senior madressa Fiqh teachers. Try to get the scholar involved in as many of the camp activities as possible!
Now to the nitty gritty side of things! The information pack mentioned earlier should include everything from proposed outings, discussion topics, and night-time security services. Attach a general consent form with a non-refundable deposit and full-payment due-date alongside a medical consent form with health information, allergies, swimming ability (if applicable to the camp), etc. Once campers have paid the deposit, issue out a legal disclaimer, a rough daily planner with volunteer names and contact details, as well as a list of things to bring to camp. The forms and payment should be looked after by one or two people, since delegating this task to several people will only complicate things.
Hiring buses can be costly, so the best thing to do is to hire one or two 12-seater vans and carpool the rest of campers and volunteers. A few loving parents won't mind chauffeuring with their seven-seater minivans for a few hours during the camp, and the volunteers can usually all drive too. Depending on the school district regulations, you may be able to rent a school bus.
Provide the campers with three proper meals a day as well as snacks. Breakfast should be kept simple and to the point to avoid unnecessary eating delays in the morning. Sandwiches, noodles, pasta, rice, pizza, or healthy take-out can be served for lunch, and proper meals for dinner work best. Snacks between meals and for sports and outings can include fruit, chips, cookies, juices, etc. Soft drinks and junk food should be limited to ensure campers don't suffer from tummy pains at night!
Now, feeding 25-35 campers in addition to a dozen volunteers for both the boys and girls camp can become quite pricey. The most convenient thing to do is to look for sponsors – there are always just enough kind-hearted parents or business owners to sponsor meals! (Make sure the dietary requirements of every person are known, and that food delivery and/or pick-up is finalized beforehand.)
Hygiene, Shower, and Security Facilities
As the camp is segregated, there should be enough bathrooms to use as both male and female ones will be available for use. Portable showers can also be hired for campers to use. Allocate at least two adults to take the role of night security, and if necessary, have a few dads or husbands of night volunteers sleeping over at the girls' camp for security purpose too.
If there is a long weekend or holiday season coming up soon, get a few people together and try out this easy-to-organize, low-cost Islamic camp. Imam Ali (peace be upon him) has said: ''Surely the heart of the youth is like an uncultivated piece of land – it will accept whatever you throw upon it [and that is what will grow from it].'' Take the next possible opportunity to help out the Muslim youth in your community by organizing an Islamic camp for them, because surely, all youth are hungry for advice and help on how to become better Muslims, but they are often neglected in our communities and not given enough attention during the early stages of their youth. Get the community on board, and let's try and positively influence them while they're still maturing!
Note: This camp outline was followed and organized for the first time by the Panjtan Society Youth Group in Melbourne, Australia over the Easter long weekend. 60 campers attended the two-day, two-night camp with more than 25 volunteers and from the looks of it, it really helped fill the void that many 10-18-year-old Muslim youth face due to the lack of entirely Halal camps available to them. In the words of participant Erum Abbas, "All together, I think the camp was very good, masha'Allah. We all learned a lot of new things that are going to be very useful in our lives in the future."
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