READFIELD — Immigrant children are able to learn and become more familiar with their new community through a YMCA summer camp that aims to bridge differences.

The Kennebec Valley YMCA has been partnered with the Capital Area New Mainers Project, which helps immigrants integrate into Maine, for about three years to provide children with a connection to the community.

“You don’t have to come here and lose your cultural identity to function within the American culture,” camp Director Paul Sveum said. “You don’t have to come here and change.”

This year, the camp has hired high school students as camp counselors, who are also involved with Capital Area New Mainers, who speak Arabic, which is the same language spoken by the immigrant children, and who can relate to them.

“Many of the kids speak pretty good English, but it can help to have someone who looks like them who can understand their language if they are feeling homesick or they are hurt,” said Chris Asch, an advocate for the Capital Area New Mainers Project.

One of the counselors, Mohammed Ajendi, said it has been a good start to his first year being a counselor. He said he is focused on keeping the kids safe as well as having fun.

Ajendi is originally from Syria. He then moved to Turkey and then Phoenix, but because it was too hot, he came and has been in Maine for two years.

Camp KV has a literacy cabin, which has books that kids can read while they are at camp. It helps immigrant children learn to read since they use characters different than English, said Andrea Lowell, Kennebec Valley YMCA’s marketing and development director.

Sveum said the Arabic-speaking counselors are different from other counselors because they act as cultural liaisons. That is helpful, he said, because he doesn’t know everything about their culture.

Camp counselor Mohammed Aljendi, second from right, talks to campers at a Kennebec Valley YMCA day camp on Wednesday. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

“I also want my campers seeing people who look like them in a position of power and leadership in our culture,” Sveum said.

Tom Warren, chief executive officer of the Kennebec Valley YMCA, said there are also words that are shared through conversation, as well as different cultural clothing.

“It’s a normalization of difference,” Sveum said.

Camp counselor Hadeel Alsaleh, top, laughs as camper Lujane Aljendi pours water over counselor Aiden Sites during a Kennebec Valley YMCA day camp Wednesday at Camp KV in Readfield. It was part of a comedy quiz in which the counselors were asked questions, and if they answered the questions wrong,  someone would drench them with a bucket of water. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Each week a new group of campers comes to Camp KV, but he estimated there are five to 10 immigrant children who are part of the program. He said there haven’t been any young children. Attendees range from children who will be entering kindergarten in the fall to those who will be in eighth grade.

The agency sent 49 children to camp last year and is hoping to send even more throughout this summer, Asch said.

The Capital Area New Mainers Project helps the families do the paperwork and get need-based scholarships so the tuition rate for attending the camp is lower.

Paul Sveum, youth program coordinator and camp director, gets a bucket of water poured over his head Wednesday during a comedy quiz at Kennebec Valley YMCA day camp. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

The organization works with the YMCA year-round to encourage immigrants to become Y members, Asch said, and help children enroll in various programs, such as swimming lessons.

The immigrant children and Maine children are teaching each other different games during the camp.

On Wednesday, campers took part in a comedy quiz in which counselors were asked questions, and if they got a question wrong, they’d get a bucket of water poured over them. Camp counselor Hadeel Alsaleh laughed as that happened to counselor Aiden Sites, who received a chilling bucket of water from camper Lujane Aljendi.

One new game involves two players. One puts down an index finger and a thumb on a flat surface to make an arch and then drops rocks around it. That player then picks a rock that cannot be moved, which acts as a goalie. The other player tries to flick all the other rocks through the goal, Sveum said. Then the players switch roles and go at it again.

“It was this really simple, really cool camp game,” he said. “It was something totally new here that was great for campers to see.

Lowell said there are no phones or other technology at the camp, so the kids can go back to be basics.

“This is an environment for a kid to be the fullest amount of a kid,” Sveum said.


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