On Monday, 6 June, I spent part of my morning with Afghan refugees in Dobbins Farm, where American NGO Open Doors has a summer program for refugees on the mainland United States. (Watch my report and interview about the same here.)
Our group was a diverse group, a mix of men, women and children, with a mix of ages and backgrounds. We had experience in teaching, cooking, business, and with children. Our leaders were both Afghan-born students and alumni from Open Doors youth summer camp, the foundation’s refugee music camp that is held for youths and refugee adults alike.
Open Doors’ summer program in 2017 started with a different focus. For the first time, Open Doors hosted kids and youth only. But, as we grew, the program soon extended to adults who, through Open Doors, learned work skills, participated in community outreach, and helped train others to share their skills and interests with other refugees. Open Doors was able to make the program happen for the first time with $200,000 from the Lincoln House program and another $200,000 from the International Rescue Committee.
Open Doors brings an understanding to Americans, a polite reminder of what many Americans do not see when they look at refugees: that there are many people in the world who, because of their circumstances, have to go somewhere to go. And they find shelter in the U.S.A. Open Doors also reminds Americans that it can be helpful for students, especially, to have veterans among their peers, helping them relate and learn about the world outside of their own experience.
Open Doors has just launched its summer summer program for families living in tents in the desert of Yuma, Arizona, but it happens each summer in the growing city of Dobbins Farm. These refugee families are entrepreneurs and adapt very well to the growing conditions in the desert. The program includes courses on agriculture, business management, health, communication, and more. I saw refugees planting crops, harvesting crops, and selling them to other refugees and to townspeople. I was also thrilled to visit a few other Open Doors programs – from a YMCA summer program for teens and youth to a simple Open Doors summer camp in a location for refugee youths far away from the camps that they were excited to be attending. (All of these locations are provided by Open Doors volunteers.)
Open Doors runs many summer camps for children and teens. One of the most beloved programs is called Music & Cookouts in a Tent City. This music camp, with two sessions, runs two weeks during the summer. Kids from Kabul to the Boston area of Massachusetts join in, making music and learning about what comes after learning from them. The kids from the camp who made the news also shared their happiness about what they learned.
Open Doors is also a great “pop up” school, providing school supplies and homework help to kids in refugee camps across the country. The kids who attended Open Doors’ programs at Yuma, Arizona, told me that they were fortunate to be at a camp where music and art play a prominent role, a camp where everyone got along, and a camp where they knew what to expect.
Dobbins Farm opened its doors to the greater community in 2008 for more than 250 days every summer. Open Doors relies on volunteers, corporate sponsors, and partners like the YMCA to continue its community outreach programs in the summer. Throughout the summer, refugees come from nearly every major refugee population, and it is important to remember the diversity of this critical workforce, a vital connection to the U.S. economy and American society.
Some of the campers are Afghan refugees fleeing the war in their homeland. Some are refugees fleeing the political climate in their homeland. Others are from Burma, Nepal, Iran, Liberia, Tanzania, or Tajikistan. Many told me that they came from Vietnam, Syria, or Somalia, because the people from their nations took them in. This diversity is unique to Americans and a testament to our values as a nation of immigrants.
We at Open Doors appreciate you watching our story and reading about our programs. But we are hard at work. We are organizing special educational and service trips to Dobbins Farm for students of all backgrounds. We are working hard to help refugees fill their imaginations and health, and it is not easy. In this ongoing conversation, the U.S. can never be bored and “can’t wait for next year” or to not care. We are many complex people, all with many stories to tell.