For many Americans, summer camp means bunk beds, bonfires and bug spray. But in Toledo, Ohio, an immersive five-week day camp has helped a group of recently resettled Syrian refugee women and children adjust to their new home in the United States.
When Corine Dehabey founded this summer program for her clients last year, she had a clear goal in mind: empowering refugee women.
Dehabey is the director of US Together in Toledo, one of HIAS’ local resettlement partners. The summer camp program she created, now in it’s second year, allowed more than fifty women and children to explore and engage in their local community.
While the inaugural program last summer took place in a classroom setting and included only a few outings, this year focused on introducing participants to various cultural and educational institutions around Toledo. Christ the King Church, a Catholic church that helps support US Together in several capacities, sponsored the outings.
All of this year’s participants were Syrian. Some have been in the U.S. for as long as two years, and others for just three months.
Roda, a mother of two, who came to Toledo a year and a half ago from Qamishli, Syria, was grateful for the sense of community the camp created among the refugee women.
“It’s such a nice and beautiful program, it was a very fun time for us and for our kids,” she said. “We found more activities and places that we didn’t know about, and it was good to know more English and to make more contact with other families.”
A visit to the National Museum of the Great Lakes, on a 300 year old ship, helped participants learn about regional history. While touring the Toledo Botanical Garden, the women and children watched a skit about how plants grow.
The group also went to two farms to learn about different kinds of animals, try horseback riding and learn about honey making. Children had swimming lessons throughout the summer, and all participants passed a swim test at the end of the program.
A particular favorite was visiting the Toledo Museum of Art, where they observed glass-blowing, and children took art classes while their mothers learned pottery techniques.
Dehabey also organized visits to local houses of worship, including a synagogue.
“I wanted them to go to a synagogue because HIAS was a part of them coming to the United States and it’s important to be exposed to different religions and to other cultures,” Dehabey, who is also from Syria, explained.
(Corine Dehabey/US Together)
At Congregation B’nai Israel, they learned the meanings of different prayers, heard Cantor Ivor Lichterman chant, and were taught about elements of Jewish traditions. Many of the refugees were surprised and excited to learn about the similarities between Judaism and Islam.
“This was undoubtedly the first time any of the participants had seen or met anyone Jewish,” said Rhoda Miller, CBI’s outreach coordinator, who helped plan the visit. “What an opportunity for both groups!”
All of the activities were intended to be both fun and educational, giving the women a chance to improve practical skills such as speaking conversational English or feeling more comfortable navigating their new city.
Some women had previously only driven short distances within Toledo; Dehabey said that one woman joked with her, “Corine, even if we didn’t do anything else in this summer camp, you helped us to be brave by driving longer distances by ourselves.”
(Corine Dehabey/US Together)
The trip that Dehabey was most excited about took place during the last week, when the group visited the campus of Bowling Green State University. Following a campus tour, they met with university President Mary Ellen Mazey, and the teenagers and their mothers learned how to apply to college.
Many women asked about how to transfer and validate their professional licenses or finish degrees they had started in Syria, in subjects including graphic design, marketing and business.
In the days since the end of the summer camp, one of the women, who did not want to work when she originally arrived in the United States, met with US Together’s employment specialist and is now actively working to find a job.
When asked about the importance of the program, Dehabey focused on the women: “My first and main goal is to empower women...I want them to develop life skills and cultural understanding.”
“I want them to try new adventures away from home and have fun on their own,” she said. She believes that this confidence helps them ease into their new lives, adding that, “adjustment is always hard, but they overcome it.”
Dehabey mentioned that an added benefit of the summer camp was raising awareness of refugees in Toledo.
Toledo has been very welcoming, she said, but reinforced that US Together wants “people to know about refugees, and to know that they are human beings like you and me.”
Dehabey expects the program to continue next summer and is already planning a fall trip to Ohio Amish country for the women while their children are in school.