Summer Camp Explores Diaspora Identity

Camp Ayandeh (“future” in Persian) is a leadership camp created by the 501(c)3 organization, Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB).  This camp’s curriculum incorporates leadership building while encouraging students to critically explore their dual heritage as Iranian Americans and develop confidence in their own identity.  Going into its seventh year, the camp has served over 1,000 students nationwide thus far.

Arton Falahati, now a sophomore at San Jose State University (SJSU), first joined Camp Ayandeh in 2008 as a sophomore in high school.  “Camp Ayandeh has made me into a more confident person. I now have more self-esteem than I could have ever imagined.”  Falahati now serves as a mentor to a group of younger campers and regularly hosts prospective SJSU applicants from the camp community when they come and visit. She also holds a leadership positions at SJSU.

The idea for Camp Ayandeh came about during an IAAB staff meeting eight years ago when we were identifying the gaps in the Iranian American community. Everyone on IAAB’s staff at the time was below the age of 22 and we talked about what we, as second-generation Iranian Americans, wished we had growing up, and what we believed the community needed in order to grow. We discussed how one of the advantages that our peers at our universities have is a strong preexisting regional and national network that is developed at summer camps and sustained through university conferences. We knew that by creating a space where young Iranians could engage with one another, we would be taking a fundamental step in empowering the youth in our community.

Through cultural, historical, and artistic workshops, community-building activities, and critical discussions, Camp Ayandeh assists students in identifying and developing responses to the issues they see affecting young people in the Iranian American community. This includes working together to interrogate negative images, construct more humanizing narratives, and practice various forms of leadership.

The Iranian American community is a young one. There are many immigrant and diaspora communities that have come before us and in order to grow into a strong community, we have to learn from the struggles, challenges, and victories of others. As such, IAAB aims to situate our Iranian American experiences in a broader historical and global context, generating dialogue with other immigrant and diasporic communities. Through all of IAAB’s programs, including Camp Ayandeh, students engage with the rich histories of communities of color in the United Statesas well as the struggles of immigrant and diasporic communities the world over.  Furthermore, since our inception, IAAB has been very adamant [about] recognizing the diverse and vibrant nature of the Iranian American community. This is a characteristic that IAAB represents, embraces, and celebrates in its ethos and in each of its programs. One concrete step we take at Camp Ayandeh is that we teach our students about the incredible diversity in the Iranian community, and we encourage them to use the term “Iranian” or “Iranian American” rather than “Persian” or “Persian American,” given the fact that not all Iranians are ethnically Persians.  In essence, Camp Ayandeh invites young Iranian Americans to reflect on their shared history and their place in the Iranian diaspora, while working to build solidarity across differences.

“I remember telling my parents that my week at Camp Ayandeh was even better than the week at Disney World.  So of course once I graduated as a camper I joined staff and Camp Ayandeh has only begun to mean more to me,” says Roshan Alemi, a former camper and member of IAAB staff, who started going to Camp Ayandeh in 2006 and graduated this year from Wellesley College.  “I don’t know what life would be like if I had never gone.  It’s really been an important part of my entire life.” (To see her Roshan’s story, watch the short video at the end of the post.)

In order to build solidarity with other communities, we have to know who we are as a community. We felt that the strongest sense of what the Iranian American community is and will be is evident at Camp Ayandeh. Through Camp Ayandeh’s curriculum, we encourage students to access and take control of their narratives, to learn their histories, and to affirm their transcultural identities.  Falahati states: “Camp Ayandeh has taught me not only how to be a much kinder and more understanding person, but also to appreciate myself as a person. I’ve learned that I have to work on myself and be confident in myself in order to be able to give back to those around me.”

“I’ve always said that Camp Ayandeh fills a hole that you didn’t really know you had until you got there,” Alemi says.

View video here.

About the author: Narges Bajoghli is the co-founder of Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB). She is a PhD student in socio-cultural and linguistic anthropology at New York University, and a documentary filmmaker in NYU’s Center for Culture and Media. Her film, The Skin That Burns, chronicles the lives of survivors of chemical warfare in Iran.

The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and its ideas and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of International diaspora Engagement Alliance, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Migration Policy Institute, or any of their partners.