KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Now a visit to the oldest summer camp for Muslim children in the country. Fifty-five years ago, an Indo-Pakistani man and his Caucasian wife opened the camp in the California woods. They modeled it on Methodist summer camps. Kids, hike, swim and roast s'mores. They also get some lessons on how to cope in a country where anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise. NPR's Leila Fadel joined the campers this year.
UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #1: Why did the cow cross the road?
UNIDENTIFIED CAMPERS #1: Why?
UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #1: Because the chicken was on vacation.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The sun has set. The hiking, swimming and prayers are over. And the kids are goofing off, taking turns telling jokes. Moments like these are some of Jasmine Wadalawala and Manar Soliman's favorite memories of being campers at Muslim Youth Camp. This year, the two college students who came to camp as children are volunteer counselors. They're setting up tents in the middle of towering pine trees in the northern California woods. For Soliman, it's a family tradition that dates back to her grandfather.
MANAR SOLIMAN: I have, like, six cousins that are here right now.
FADEL: Most of her friends back home in Texas, she says, had never met a Muslim before her. They have a lot of stereotypes of what a Muslim looks like, and it is not her. She has blue hair and goals to be a professional wrestler.
SOLIMAN: It's a lot of explaining - you know, why people wear hijab, why I don't wear hijab, you know, why I don't drink alcohol and all of these things.
FADEL: But at camp there's none of that.
SOLIMAN: I don't have any, like, responsibility. I'm not, like, the only Muslim. I'm not the spokesperson for all of Islam here.
FADEL: This year, she and Wadalawala are a little worried. Days before the week-long camp began, someone threw a bomb into a Minnesota mosque.
SOLIMAN: Who gets the address to this place?
JASMINE WADALAWALA: I was thinking Muslim Youth Camp. I was like, that sounds like - that would be kind of scary.
SOLIMAN: It - yeah.
WADALAWALA: I actually thinking that last night in my bunk. I was like, what if somebody comes, like, and busts through the door, like, with a gun?
SOLIMAN: Maybe we should change the name.
FADEL: It's something other American summer campers probably don't think about. But at this camp, the address is only given to people once they register to keep it safe. And there are sessions with campers on how to deal with anti-Islamic rhetoric, which is rising sharply. After a day of swimming...
UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #2: Mom, take these.
UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #3: You can use them if you want.
FADEL: ...Skits about good and bad character traits...
UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #4: Hey, can I read your book?
UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #5: The half-blood - yeah. You can read my book.
FADEL: ...And after learning a prayer at dawn, sitting on mats outside surrounded by trees...
UNIDENTIFIED CAMPERS #2: (Praying in foreign language).
FADEL: ...Asifa Quraishi-Landes, the daughter of the founders of this camp, gives a seminar on how to answer hostile questions about being Muslims, like do Muslims lie and want to change American law? She's a scholar of law.
ASIFA QURAISHI-LANDES: Here's the thing that's really important for us to know and to say, that Islam itself says I have to follow the laws of the land that I live in. That is actually part of sharia.
FADEL: Sharia is Islamic jurisprudence. And it has many forms of interpretation that guide the way that Muslims live, including what they eat. It's a lot like Catholic canon law or halacha, Jewish law. But anti-Muslim groups tell people it's a threat to the American way of life. It's a pretty heavy topic for summer camp, but that's what being Muslim in America is today, Asifa Quraishi-Landes says. She and her sisters grew up in this camp, and now their children learn about Islam here, too.
QURAISHI-LANDES: It comes out of fun. Like, you know, it's fun. It's fun to be a kid. (Laughter) It should be fun to be Muslim kid, too.
FADEL: The kids have classes that explore the Islamic saying, love for your brother what you love for yourself. Bullying comes up. Zareena Grewal, a historical anthropologist at Yale, leads a class of middle schoolers at camp. She asks if people think Muslims are weird.
UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #6: No. They just call me a terrorist.
ZAREENA GREWAL: They call you a terrorist?
UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #6: They're like, guys, he has a bomb on his watch. Run, he's going to bomb the school.
FADEL: The boy shrugs, says he doesn't care. Other kids nod. Almost all of them have been called ISIS or terrorist. Camp teachers asked me not to use children's names when they were sharing sensitive stories in class about being bullied. Grewal asks a question.
GREWAL: If you imagine those people at your school were able to see us here at camp playing basketball or just being ordinary campers, do you think that would change their views?
UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #6: No, they wouldn't care.
FADEL: But one child disagrees.
UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #7: I think if they saw us doing the classes and, like, learning about all this stuff, then they would know that we're humans, not just animals.
FADEL: Humans, not just animals. The class ends. The boys and girls start teasing each other and run outside for free time. Leila Fadel, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANCHA VIA CIRCUITO'S "SUENO EN PARAGUAY")
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