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Summer camp is an American tradition. But it's a completely new experience for kids who come to this country from refugee camps. This is a story about a summer day camp that immerses newcomers in American culture. It also sharpens their English skills. There's also music, a language all kids understand. And it was brought to them by a world famous musician. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Union, N.J.
KINAN AZMEH: (Playing clarinet).
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The tall man with a balding head and trim beard tells the youngest refugees that his clarinet is magical. He folds himself down to a 5-year-old's eye level for children from more than a dozen countries, including the Middle East and Africa. And he plays like a whisper, he tells them.
AZMEH: (Playing clarinet).
AMOS: They're too young to know that Kinan Azmeh is really famous. He's a Grammy Award winner, a musician and composer born in Syria. He usually plays for international audiences, not in a crouch on the floor, where he whispers to the kids.
AZMEH: (Whispering) Are you ready for the loud part? Put your hands in your ears.
AMOS: This audience is delighted.
AZMEH: (Playing clarinet).
It's amazing. I remember when I was a little kid, you know, when somebody's playing an instrument - and you want to be physically connected to it. And you want touch the magic, you know?
AMOS: His visit is the high point of a three-week course for more than 70 refugee kids run by the International Rescue Committee in New Jersey. Azmeh volunteered, he says, because he understands the hard journey these kids have been on, uprooted from home. In January, he was on similar shaky ground. He was on tour in Europe when a presidential executive order canceled visas and banned travel from seven majority-Muslim nations to the U.S., including Syria. For days, he didn't know if he could fly home to New York, where he's lived for 16 years.
AZMEH: Yes. I risked not being able to come back home. It gave me perspective. What does it mean for other people? You know, you can always feel emotionally shaken by something. For me, I immediately think, what can I do?
AMOS: An outspoken critic of the Syrian regime, he can't go there to help. What he did is record an album, "Songs For Days To Come," donating half of the proceeds to this summer camp. He's part of the program that gets newly arrived refugee kids ready for an American classroom. Many have missed years of school due to war and violence back home. They get to practice their English and learn other basic skills.
MEGAN BERGERT: Just those things that seem so simple, like bringing your backpack every day and learning how to sit and keep your hands to yourself.
AMOS: That's Megan Bergert. She's the youth coordinator for the IRC. The kids also get yoga classes and drama therapy here to overcome the trauma of forced migration and the rising anti-Muslim, anti-refugee sentiment in their new home. Even the youngest kids feel it, she says.
BERGERT: You know, they feel those things in their bodies. They know that there's tension at home. They're not watching it on the news. They don't know what the details are very often. But that's why they come in, and we see it on their faces - because they're feeling it as a physical experience.
AZMEH: OK. Now let's do one, two, three, four.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)
AZMEH: Don't rush.
AMOS: Azmeh's music workshop offers a respite for the teenagers here, too, in a separate session for them. The music opens this circle of kids from different countries, different languages, now all refugees who have to adapt to a new country.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Hoo. Hoo. Hoo.
AMOS: His wife, Layale Chaker, a concert violinist, plays as Azmeh leads a dance that teaches a musical language. Abdullah Mahmoud, a 16-year-old from Iraq, is beaming as he pounds out a rhythm with his new friends at summer camp. He arrived nine months ago with his parents from Baghdad and has already learned a lot about his new country.
ABDULLAH MAHMOUD: The most important thing is the freedom of religion. Any person can do his religion.
AMOS: So you didn't worry that being a Muslim was going to be a problem. You already knew that you had a right.
MAHMOUD: Yeah. I don't worry about the Muslim thing because I read that every person in the United States has freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
AZMEH: You can have a louder cheese, guys. This is too soft.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Cheese.
AMOS: Azmeh says music is also about freedom - freedom to express your emotions. The kids swarm him for selfies to remember their first American summer camp. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Union, N.J.
(SOUNDBITE OF KINAN AZMEH'S "TULINA'S CARMONA")
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