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More Than S’mores — Muslim Youth Camp Nurtures Students For A Life Of Advocacy

More than s’mores — Muslim youth camp nurtures students for a life of advocacy

By Hannah Shraim
GSS correspondent

ANGELUS OAKS, California — It’s a youth program, but it’s not all campfire stories and crafty activities at Tarbiya Camp.

For practicing Muslims, the name itself is a clear clue: An Arabic word, “tarbiya” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Islam as “upbringing (and) education” and by other sources as “training” or “discipline.”

Campers Anwar Abdullah (left) and Aisha Sharif take part in a tightrope exercise aimed at mimicking the concept of remaining on the straight path in their faith. The activity took place at Tarbiya Camp West, a program for Muslim youth, in December 2017. Photo Ibrahim Abdelhafeez/used with permission.

And that makes Tarbiya a place where finding your inner path is just as important as roasting marshmallows or playing dodgeball.

“To spiritually discipline myself, I find, is extremely important with how I interact with the world,” said Bushra Bangee, 21, of Riverside, Calif., and a senior at the University of California at Irvine.

Bangee was one of approximately 100 young Muslims aged 18 to 26 who gathered Dec. 24 to Dec. 31 at Tarbiya Camp West Coast in Angelus Oaks, Calif. Attendees came from California and across the country, including Florida, Maryland, Minnesota and Virginia.

The timing of the camp — just short of one month before the Trump administration celebrated its first anniversary of the president’s inaugural — came after an arduous year that included several bitterly contested proposals to limit Muslim travel to the U.S. and a rise in hate crimes against Muslims.

A survey by the Pew Research Center last July found that two-thirds of American Muslims said that Trump worried them and 75 percent reported that “a lot of discrimination” exists against Muslims in the U.S.

Contrast that with the peaceful setting of Tarbiya Camp West, located 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

A peaceful scene near Tarbiya Camp in the San Bernardino mountains. Photo by Hannah Shraim for GSS.

On a recent December day, the roads leading up to the campsite curved through desert and the San Bernardino mountain range, with clear blue skies, giraffe-like trees and views that seemed as unreal as an Apple screensaver.

Bangee appreciated the perspective.

“Yes, we are a minority, but more so than that, we are oftentimes very siloed in smaller communities,” said Bangee, president of Muslim Student Association West, a coalition representing Muslim associations at college campuses across the West Coast.

“That can be difficult when dealing with larger issues of Islamophobia when you’re trapped in your small community and don’t understand issues on a larger scale,” she added.

Tarbiya Camp West was organized by the Muslim American Society, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Islamic issues and communities.

Left to right: Zunera Bukhari, Tasneem Kaddoura and Fatima Abdelhafeez present their initiative to solve an issue facing the Muslim community. Campers discussed issues ranging from racism within the Muslim community, support for Muslim adoptees, and strengthening the connection between parents and youth in an age of miscommunication between generations. Photo by Ibrahim Abdelhafeez/used with permission.

According to the group’s website, the tarbiya program is part of an effort “to raise a generation of committed and disciplined American Muslims who are living example of the message of Islam,” including a commitment to faith, life-long learning, being an “exemplary citizen” and an “agent of change.”

Applicants fill out an online form describing their reasons for attending and their record of community work. The one-week program costs $230, not including airfare or other transportation.  

While even a spiritual retreat includes rest and relaxation, Tarbiya is a dawn-to-dusk boot camp for young Muslims to solidify their religious identities and learn how to serve as productive members of society.

The rigorous daily schedule at Tarbiya Camp West included morning prayers at 5 a.m., plus lectures, sports activities, reflection circles and daily Quran reflection until 10:20 p.m. and lights out.

And while campers did roast marshmallows and play dodgeball, each activity and lecture was designed around five key principles: cultured thought, pure belief, strong body, self-sufficiency and good character.

On the second day of the camp, Ismahan Warfa — co-host of the podcast Flip the Script and director of Community Partnership & Civic Engagement at the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans — gave a lecture on the importance of staying on top of current events.

According to Warfa, “cultured thought” is not of simply book knowledge, but also a call to action.

A July 2017 study by the Pew Research Center called “The Muslim Experience in the Trump Era” found widespread concern among U.S. Muslims about discrimination. Screenshot by GSS staff.

At one point in her lecture, Warfa encouraged the audience to call out different issues facing both the Muslim community and American society at large. Campers responded with concerns over the high rate of incarceration in the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program, environmental protections and income inequality.

Warfa encouraged Muslims to look at the broader picture of resistance, an idea called intersectionality that suggests that social change should take place at the same time for people across racial and ethnic lines. 

She added that the discipline inherent in tarbiya is the key to consistency, time management and effectiveness.

“Even if you’re not interested in politics, politics is interested in you,” she added.

Among Warfa’s action items for campers on their path of advocacy: Renew your intentions; stay “woke” and read; never get your news from social media; find a mentor and get informed about local issues.

Bangee said Tarbiya Camp West gave her strength for the year ahead: “These camps are important to identity formation, camaraderie and community building.”

The next Tarbiya Camp West is scheduled to take place in December. MAS organizers are tentatively planning a second Tarbiya camp on the East Coast this summer.

—Featured photo: Campers attend an afternoon talk at Tarbiya Camp West in December 2017. Most camp activities took place outdoors, including academic lectures.
Photo by Ibrahim Abdelhafeez/used with permission.

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