In Features

World Relief Durham’s RISE Camp is Connecting Refugee Children Around The Common Experience Of Being A Kid

It’s a hot Wednesday afternoon in the heart of summer. Outside of Jordan High School in Durham, it’s a heavy 90 degrees with rain from the previous day’s storms steaming off the blacktop.

But inside the school’s cafeteria, which is closed for the summer for another two weeks, The Scrap Exchange has set up blue buckets of materials left over from their creative reuse arts center. Kids are digging into mountains of Styrofoam, paper towel tubes, and CDs before racing off to long cafeteria tables lined with the tape, scissors, and string needed to create whatever their imaginations can come up with.

“The only rule is that they can’t make a weapon,” laughs Rob Callus, World Relief Durham’s Refugee and Immigrant Youth Services Coordinator. “And I think that’s a pretty good rule.”

These kids are campers enjoying an educational summer camp experience, much like hundreds of others across Durham County’s 298-square miles. They’re also refugees and immigrants from countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo who, under normal circumstances, are united by the common trauma that comes from escaping violence.

But at RISE Camp, they’re united around something different: the joys of being a kid.

The United States expects to settle up to 30,000 refugees across the country this year and of those, approximately 1,000 will be resettled in the Greater Triangle area.

These families often come with very little and need support integrating into local culture. That’s where World Relief Durham, a United Way-funded partner, comes in.  

While housing placement, job placement, and medical insurance support exist to help adults — which the organization does offer to all families they help integrate — Callus says that there aren’t many programs that exist to support the children, who often have experienced the same trauma as their parents.

RISE Camp is the start of their solution. While the campers are enjoying the simple act of playing with their peers, the nimble team at World Relief Durham is creating a structure that focuses on educational retention, mental health support, and cultural integration.

And they’re not doing it alone. Through a $25,000 grant from United Way of the Greater Triangle, World Relief Durham was able to ensure — through this camp — that 120 kids could avoid summer learning loss and will also be able to help another 80 students with their academic performance during the school year. The latter will specifically focus on helping students build the English language skills necessary to succeed in the classroom.

“We want [RISE Camp] to be part of a social support network these kids otherwise wouldn’t have, one that speaks their language and understands their background,” explains Adam Clark, World Relief Durham’s Office Director. “This program gives them the chance to gather in one place, meet each other, build friendships, and find mentors in older kids, counselors, and even staff.”

It’s the volunteer counselors that help bring that mission into practice. Omar Obaydi is one them.

Obaydi has lived in the United States for a little over six years but you wouldn’t know it at first glance. He’s fluent in English and has become known for his perpetual smile and impeccable wardrobe (drive by the school’s soccer field and you might see him scoring goals in formal wear).

He volunteers as the camp’s “Cultural Broker” and specializes in helping the kids break down and understand the cultural barriers that influence their relationships both in and outside of the camp. Most importantly, he understands how to help these kids because after emigrating from Iraq in 2012, he also received support from World Relief Durham.

“I’m from Iraq, so moving from Iraq to the United States is an entirely different experience. I came and basically didn’t know anything about anything in here and that’s when the World Relief came in to help me. They vouched for me and funded my first house. They helped with the first three months in terms of rent and bills. They also played a great role in that they have ESL classes. They have a lot of orientations to help adjust and adapt to new culture and traditions of the United States,” said Obaydi, who recently graduated from N.C. State University with a major in political science and a minor in Psychology.

He also serves as one of the camp’s volunteer translators, who, combined, specialize in 8 minority languages including Arabic and Swahili.

“I’m everywhere in the camp because some of the kids really don’t understand where there are certain cultural and language barriers. That’s where I come in. Sometimes we have a certain challenge, like when one of the teachers is trying to communicate with the kids, I come in as a facilitator and play that role in helping to tackle any cultural barriers, trying to analyze and anticipate if behaviors are coming because of their different backgrounds,” he explained. “I try to guide them to the best way that I think can help them. I’ve been blessed with some great mentors in my life so I’m trying to pay it forward. 

This past summer, nearly 150 kids got the chance to learn, play, and grow within the camp’s walls. But when it came to an end, the campers and their parents left knowing World Relief Durham will support them year-round.

“They just need an anchor, a support system. We want to be a part of the system that immigrants can grow up with, so they know they always have a safe space,” explains Rob Callus.

That’s evident in the after-school programs that offer academic support that’s accessible for kids coming from an ESL (English as a Second Language) background. This includes bi-lingual instruction from interpreters who can help kids complete an English-language assignment in their native language.

“There are just not a ton of resources for these kids. We’re kind of trailblazing, which is exciting but honestly sad that we’re the only ones doing this work to our knowledge in this area.”

Callus, Clark, and Obaydi are setting a preeminent example of the leadership that refugee and immigrant kids needs in the community. Because while they’re focused on their long-term individual success, they’re also present on a day-to-day basis. It’s a luxury many of the campers, whose parents often work overtime to support their families, don’t normally get. 

These interactions provide a reprieve from the trauma they’ve experienced. It gives them the chance to enjoy their childhood.

“I think World Relief is a nice camp. When first I came to it, I thought ‘oh my gosh’ I’m not going to make any friends. But then I met other girls,” shares Muskaan Z., an 11-year-old from Pakistan. “It’s a wonderful camp because here you can meet people you’ve never met, some from different countries, and some from the same country as I am.”