National story about STL Jewish community summer camps for refugee children

(JTA) — When he signed up to be a counselor at a Jewish-run summer camp for refugee children, Isaac Eastlund expected to confront trauma.

Instead, when he would come up to his campers, a couple months or years removed from fleeing Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he’d find them plugged into their phones, listening to some of his favorite rappers, like Migos or Kendrick Lamar.

“I was nervous just because I knew I’d be working with refugees, and I had this expectation that they might be damaged in some way and it might be difficult to navigate around that,” said Eastlund, 18. “But the cool part to me was seeing how normal these kids really are, and how easy it was to connect with them on a personal level.”

Eastlund, who just graduated from a St. Louis-area high school, is a counselor at a day camp for refugees run by the local Jewish Community Relations Council. It’s one of a few summer camps across the country for refugees run by Jews. The camps hope to acclimate the new arrivals and ease the load for their parents. But mostly they want to provide a relaxed space where kids can be kids.

“The cultural barrier we see the most is these kids are on guard,” said Alyssa Banford, a staff member at the JCRC who coordinates the St. Louis camp’s operations. “The kids who have just arrived in the U.S. are totally overwhelmed and they have their guards up. They haven’t been in an environment where they can be just kids and have fun.”

The St. Louis program, in its second year, has approximately 80 campers and 160 staff volunteers this summer. It runs three hours a day for four weeks.

In Washington state, the Union for Reform Judaism co-organizes two weeklong camps for refugees. And a synagogue in Sacramento, California, will soon open its two-week camp for refugees alongside the day camp it runs on its campus for Jewish kids.

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