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Refugee children attend new summer camp in St. Louis

While the children are learning and playing games, their parents and adult family members are in class, learning English and American culture.

Some campers head into the woods while others spend their summer in a church basement.

For one group of local children, camp is a brand new American adventure.

For four weeks this summer, the International Institute of St. Louis is hosting a summer camp for refugee children. About 45 campers signed up.

“The children that we have in the camp are from Somalia, Congo, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Nepal or Bhutan,” explained Debra Smith, the Volunteer Coordinator for Client Services at the International Institute.

While the children are learning and playing games, their parents and adult family members are in class, learning English and American culture.

“The refugee adults who arrive here need to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible,” Smith explained. “The funding that they have doesn’t last very long. So they really need to get jobs. To get a decent job here, of course, you have to speak English. So it’s to their advantage and the community's advantage for them to speak English as soon as possible.”

The camp allows parents to continue their classes during the summer time, while kids are no longer occupied during school hours. The idea came from a group of volunteers with the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), who recently formed the Jewish Coalition for New Americans Committee.

“It’s incredibly important for the Jewish community to welcome these families to their new home. Not too long ago, we were refugees as well,” explained Alyssa Bandford, the Program and Engagement Associate for JCRC.

“Whether it was us ourselves, our parents, grandparents — we came over to this country without anything. And we had to build up a new life in America, so we understand the struggles these parents and these families are going through.”

JCRC designed the four-week camp curriculum, which includes a different theme each week. The children play games, learn about animals, enjoy exercise activities and more. JCRC provided bus tickets to help families with transportation to camp, and Operation Food Search provided free lunches for the month. About 100 people are volunteering at the camp.

Like at any other summer camp, some children were shy at first. Soon, they were smiling and participating in games.

“You can see the difference. From day one to now, they've made a huge transition,” Banford said.

During one day at camp in mid-July, children got to learn about animals and pet a snake, a piglet and a turtle. In one room, campers practiced yoga while others colored pictures. At mealtime, the children ate Lunchables and tossed Frisbees.

For the last week at camp, the theme is “I Am An American.”

“We want to set these families up for success in America,” Banford said.

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