CAIRO - Blending prayers, Qur'an and games, a summer camp in California is helping young American Muslims to take pride in their culture and faith to overcome challenges triggered by growing hostility in the United States against the religious minority.
"We want the kids to be proud of who they are as Muslims," Omar Ezzeldine, a 36-year-old American Muslim, who was born in Los Angeles to Egyptian parents, told Los Angeles Times on Sunday, August 26.
Titled Camp Izza, the Arabic word for "pride, the camp is meant to help Muslims show pride with their identity.
Run by Omar Ezzeldine and his wife Munira, the camp is believed to be the only Muslim summer camp in the United States that is accredited by the American Camp Assn.
At the camp, campers are divided according to their age, falling into four groups; the Seeds, the Dates, the Coconuts and the Trees.
Typical camp activities start in the morning, including scavenger hunts, a "pirates and princesses" dress-up play and water-balloon tosses.
But the activities are interwoven with Muslim prayers, Qur'an recitation and story time that includes tales about Makkah and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him).
Most of the campers are children of immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries.
Coming from different countries, some young campers do not know how to pray.
Therefore, when prayers are recited, Ezzeldine or one of the counselors will lead.
"That's OK," Ezzeldine said. "I make it a point to enunciate the verses.
I tell everyone whatever your level of prayer is today, make it better tomorrow," he added.
An undergraduate of physiology, who later received a doctorate in educational leadership, Ezzeldine has served as a counselor at a charity camp for underprivileged kids in Los Angeles and at Camp Wayne in Pennsylvania.
"I really think kids are kids and they have needs to be met," said Ezzeldine, whose own children (Yusuf, 11; Zayd, 9; and Ali, 4) also attend Camp Izza.
"They need to feel valued and understood, and they need opportunities to explore interests and skills."
It is unknown exactly how many Muslim summer camps there are in the United States.
Out of the 12,000 summer camps in the country, the American Camp Assn. has accredited 2,400, of which only 250 have religious affiliations. Izza Camp is the only Muslim one on that list.
The young Muslim campers are facing the challenge of establishing their identities in a culture where anti-Islam rhetoric is rife in political campaigns, cable news punditry and Hollywood films.
"It's important for [my son] to be somewhere where a positive attitude toward his faith is reinforced," said Samar Ghannoum, 46, who sent her 8-year-old Kareem to the camp this summer.
"He is the future, in a lot of ways. He is American and Muslim."
FBI data indicate that hate crimes against Muslims in the United States are still on the rise.
Although anti-Muslim crimes fell to 107 in 2009 from nearly 500 in 2001, the latest data, from 2010, show that such hate crimes rebounded to 160.
At least seven Islamic centers reported vandalism, including fires and shot-out windows this month, shortly after an attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
Sikhs are sometimes mistaken for Muslims.
A recent Gallup World Religion Survey found that 53% of Americans see Islam "not too favorable" or worse; a much higher percentage than expressed negative feelings about other major religions.
"They should be able to say they like learning" about their faith, Ezzeldine said."It's a beautiful thing when a child finishes the Qur'an by the end of camp."