Most Fulfilling Week of My Life: Alwan Masr Camp

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 46 seconds

Last week was possibly the most fulfilling week of my life. From an idea that came up in a voice note exchange with a friend, to a reality right before my eyes, and the realization that this, although it’s like noting I’ve ever done before, fits so perfectly into my mission in life.

Back track to mission in life: after graduating with a BSc in Computer Science and starting to work in the IT department of Procter & Gamble, I remembered that back when I was 11, I saw the education system in Egypt (for the first time, because I had been living in Kuwait before that) and thought, “Some day I’m going to fix this.”. So I made an effort to move myself out of corporate IT, and besides lots of NGO work towards mentoring youth and tangentially working on education, within a couple of years I had moved out of corporate and into where I am now: Center for Learning and Teaching at AUC. But you know, I ended up working at a university, working directly with faculty, and not with young people directly. When I taught, I taught in-service teachers or undergraduate students. And of course professors. It was all fulfilling. But it was not directly what I had originally set out to do when I said I wanted to work on “education”.

I had a child 11 years ago. She’s not in a typical Egyptian system school. She’s in a system that uses British and IB systems. And while those systems work better for developing critical and creative thinking, there were two problems here that I struggled with:

A. This kind of schooling and upbringing colonizes the mind. She’s learning to think and act critically and creatively *their* way, a way removed from her own culture and values. She becomes a cultural hybrid, like me, which is not necessarily bad, if she gets relatively good exposure to multiple cultures and in a way that does not frame one culture as superior to the others. But in reality…. B

B. The Arabic and religion and social studies taught at school continued to use the ineffective Egyptian system of encouraging rote learning and a curriculum that doesn’t connect deeply with students. IB system should, theoretically, give lots of room to incorporate innovative pedagogies with local culture and content, but on the ground, this was not happening.

The end result of all this was that my child, along with a large chunk of upper middle class Egyptian kids, were growing up disconnected from their own language and culture in ways that were painful. And many of us parents were struggling to counter that. One really positive thing I saw with my own child is that she recognized both the colonialism and found in herself a desire and motivation to improve her Arabic.

So I came up with multiple ideas to address this. I talked to the school. The only thing I managed to get immediately was space to do an “Egyptian cultural club” which I did with a few other parents where we brought kids in to play in Arabic every now and then during break times. I also worked individually with my child to improve her Arabic reading outside the curriculum via reading comics together and Quran. Both of these helped and her Arabic reading improved a lot.

The biggest idea, though, was to develop what eventually became Alwan Masr camp.

Journey to Alwan Masr Camp

I remembered that last summer, my daughter went to a 5 day camp at AUC on robotics which she and her cousin enjoyed tremendously. I figured maybe if she was immersed in a similar 5 days of speaking Arabic and learning about Egypt in an engaging manner, that it would help spark something for the future, shift an attitude slightly, something! So I talked to some people I know whom I know had been deep into this kind of thinking and those values, and we came up with lists of other people we know who had done work on this, and we all met to try to conceptualize this camp. We had several meetings, we spoke to AUC about the possibility of running it through them, and they were enthusiastic, and we proposed and they accepted.

Reality of Alwan Masr Camp

I’m not an expert on either teaching younger kids, nor on Egyptian culture. So out of our group of 18 or so people, some folks recommended possible facilitators for the camp, and a couple of folks offered to facilitate one day each. Our Egyptologist in the group led a museum trip, and a children’s book author in the group led a downtown walk and a book reading & creation day. I was originally not going to be there, but planning to send my child and attend maybe the trip days. It ended up that for many reasons, I was there the entire time. Planning ahead was challenging because we went from 5 registered kids to 10 to 15 in a matter of days before the event. We also had a large age range from 6-12 (originally planned from 8-12) and varying linguistic fluency which we could not gauge accurately on paper. But after the first day, I reflected with the facilitators and also got feedback from parents, my daughter, and her cousin, and we shifted gears.

I met the parents each morning and afternoon and called them if there was something, took photos and emailed regulsrly. I took the kids to and from lunch and such, and kept them entertained when facilitators needed time to do things. And when I gave feedback to the facilitators about organizing the second day, they suggested I facilitate parts of the experiences. I didn’t think I was capable of this. But I dismissed I facilitated some “emotional literacy” game play (I had a bilingual version, see image below) of a game called Cloud 4 (while other kids played Arabic word game 7areef el 7orouf with another facilitator, then we switched), and I created a campus Scavenger Hunt to get the kids exploring campus. Both of these activities worked really well with the older kids and the hunt worked well with all of them. The idea for the hunt came from an observation that kids wanted to explore the campus, which is our old downtown campus composed of historic buildings with lots of Arabic design in the architecture and interior design. So we built on that opportunity. They also seemed interested in cats on campus so we built in some animal and plant exploration into the hunt.

Children playing Cloud 4 bilingual game

For me, the most important outcome of the camp was seeing the kids bond with one another by the second day. I realized that while I know very little about facilitating a camp on Egyptian culture for kids, I do know about community building in general, and I had very capable facilitators for the content piece. And I do teach about identity to older university students, so I also have those values. I don’t know necessarily that I can concretely say these kids developed better use of Arabic and better knowledge of their culture, but I know they enjoyed it and made connections with other children, and I am sure when they were enjoying themselves they learned something, whether or not it is explicit to them while they are learning it.

It’s difficult to express details of how this worked because the joy of experiencing it and falling in love with the kids and their parents was overwhelming me. It drained my energy: mental, emotional, physical and even moral energy from carrying the responsibility for these kids and their well-being. But it was soooo worth it.

When I sat with the kids to ask them to redesign next year’s camp, they asked to keep and repeat and expand many things. And they asked for two key things that I loved: make it two weeks! And have the 9lder kids act as counselors for the younger kid. And these two things said it all for me 💕

Featured image: kids playing Beladna a game centered around the map of Egypt

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