Home for the Summer
It’s 8:30 AM in Providence’s South Side, and BRYTE Camp is wide awake.
Campers and counselors whoop and whistle, frolicking to music in the humid gym of the Leviton Annex School. Girls chat and sing; boys shout and toss basketballs.
Eight college counselors from Brown University and Rhode Island College, along with eight junior counselors - local high schoolers or college students from the refugee community - are giving hugs and high-fives, twirling and dancing with kids.
It’s chaos, but a unique, exuberant chaos - free of anxiety, full of joy. Suddenly, somehow, the sea of students settles into a circle on the concrete yard. It’s time for the BRYTE Camp morning ritual: skits and dances, each performance punctuated by wild clapping and euphoric hooting.
All together, the group sings the camp theme song:
B-R-Y-T-E...That’s the place I want to be. B-R-Y-T-E...Learning can be fun for me. B-R-Y-T-E...Building our community...B-R-Y-T-E...Come on, friends sing along with me!
AT BRYTE Camp, refugees from all over the world, and all over the city, congregate in classrooms for six summer weeks. They learn math, reading, creative arts and more, as well as play soccer, swim, conduct science experiments, embark on field trips, and most importantly: meet each other.
The 76 campers, ages 7 to 14, are literally and figuratively all over the map. Many speak more than three languages, such as Swahili, Kirundi, Nepali, and Arabic. They hail from over fifteen countries. A twelve-year-old might learn at a seven-year-old’s level. Some speak and read English fluently, others can’t write in any language. Some burst with energy, others stick to the sidelines. Some have been in the country for many years, others have recently arrived. To some, BRYTE Camp is a tight-knit family, and to others it’s a new and strange community.
Despite this diversity, there’s tremendous commonality in the campers’ experience. For one, their families have come to the United States seeking a better life. As refugees, they’ve had to make new friends, attend a new school, and make the dizzying transition to a new country. But perhaps more obviously, they’re all kids--excited about the summer break, hoping to have fun.
In the midst of the commotion, I asked a few of the campers to share their stories of coming to Providence and BRYTE Camp. Meet Naw from Burma, Francois from Tanzania, Sama from Iraq, Eden, and Etienne from Mozambique.
Naw, Age 9
I’m from Burma. My family - my grandfather and grandmother - still live there, and I miss them a lot. I love my country, especially the dances. People wore beautiful dresses when they danced, and tied their hair up in bracelets.
But I do like living in the States... mostly because of BRYTE Camp... and I guess friends and family too.
When I first came to BRYTE Camp, I was scared. It was strange to be here; I didn’t understand anything. I was shy, because it’s hard to make new friends. I hid behind my mom.
Now this is my third year. I’m friends with all the teachers, and some boys from Africa. I’m good at English. I’ve raised my hand in class. I’ve even danced and sung songs from my country in front of people.
At camp they taught me how to do math. I love it. You solve the problem and get the answer--that’s that. Easy peasy. When I grow up, I want to be a math teacher. I’d love to help kids, and I’ll remember those that helped me.
Francois, Age 14
I’ve been coming to BRYTE Camp ever since it started.
My parents sometimes tell me stories of life in Burundi. They had one of my brothers in Burundi, and then the civil war started and it was too much for them. They migrated to Tanzania, where they had me and my other brother. We stayed in a refugee camp for a while and applied to come to America. America is a pretty big deal over there. Everyone told us that if we got the opportunity to come here, we should. So we took the chance...
When I came to BRYTE Camp for the first time, I had been in the United States for less than two years. I came to America with no English at all. I copied my friends’ work in school. But I kept coming to BRYTE Camp and kept trying and now people are shocked when I tell them that I’m here from Africa.
Now I want to be valedictorian - that’s my goal. It’s a really big challenge though. People know I’m the type of person focused on getting to the top. Any good student is my rival. But at BRYTE Camp, there’s no competition. Since I already finished the math/reading/science curriculum and I’m in BLI (BRYTE Leadership Institute), I’m here to learn about things they don’t teach us at school, like the environment, social justice, and art.
I’ll always remember last year’s final celebration. VyVy was the camp director, and at the end of the celebration, everyone was saying goodbye to her on stage. When I walked up to give her flowers and say a few words about how we had an incredible summer and appreciated all her hard work, she cried. Then everyone got onstage and started hugging her, singing songs, and crying.
Afterward, when the room emptied out, I stayed to help clean up. There Vyvy was - sitting in the same place, still crying.
If you get so close to the point of feeling like family, like you can’t stop shedding tears, that’s something. That’s something you keep in your memory forever.
Sama, Age 10
I came to the US two years ago from Iraq. It took a long time for us to get here. Half my family is still in Iraq, and I miss them because I know I can’t see them anytime soon.
I remember I came to America on the last day of school. So, I had to learn everything, including English, the next year in third grade. But I did it. Compared to learning Arabic, nothing’s really hard.
The day I got the Spirit Bear at BRYTE Camp was my favorite day ever. The spirit bear is a bear that the teachers give you when you do good things, like behave and lead and help out. If you get it, they let you put your own badge on its cape. They announce a new Spirit Bear winner everyday at morning circle. I was nervous, sitting and thinking, Who is it going to be? Could it be me? They give hints, and one morning they said the person loves all the academic subjects, likes knitting, gives lots of hugs, and is clumsy. I thought, Ok, it might be me. And then they said my name, and I jumped up and down and was like, Oh my God! I don’t believe it!
BRYTE Camp is the first time I’ve been around people from such different countries, speaking different languages. Some people are from my country and speak my language, but mostly my friends are from all over. I don’t really know where, because we don’t talk about it--that’s all in the past.
What matters is we’re here, and we love each other. Sometimes I notice the differences between us, but almost always I feel we’re the same people. Like really, people are all the same anyway.
Eden, Age 7
I don’t know where I’m from. I’ve never asked, and my parents haven’t told me.
My favorite thing about BRYTE Camp is the field trips. Once, we went to a farm where we picked food and made our own yummy salad. I’ve never done that. If I was home, I wouldn’t really be going outside.
Oh, and my other favorite thing is swimming! The water is so, so cold and my tummy turns freezing! I don’t know how to swim. It was my first time. It’s scary to hold my breath for so long. But I’m learning. I wish I had a mermaid tail. Sara (Camp Director) swims like a real-life Ariel.
I’m going to miss BRYTE Camp so much now that it’s ending. I’m going to miss swimming, because I won’t be able to go until next summer. I’ll miss the teachers. And my friends, who are mostly teachers. I’m sad.
Etienne, Age 17
I was born in Tanzania and then moved to Mozambique, where I grew up. It was my father’s decision for us to come to America. There was fighting in Mozambique, and twice I almost got killed. I thank God I’m still alive. I could have died, because friends who were defending me died.
My father wanted us to have education. In Africa, I’d stopped going to school. The school was three miles away, and I’d have to walk. There was no homework and I’d have to sit on the ground all day. I knew that even if I had a degree I wouldn’t get a good job, so I didn’t care.
We came to America last year. When I arrived, I had no idea how to speak English, or minus or plus, or do division or multiplication. I was almost sixteen, but I felt like I was in Kindergarten. My teacher at school had to use sign language with me. To everything I just said, “Yes, yes.” People asked my name and I said, “Yeah.” I couldn’t say “I am Etienne.” They laughed at me and I had no idea why.
At my public school, it was impossible to meet new people. No one ever came to talk to me. I remember sitting at lunch in the cafeteria by myself, waiting to see if someone would say hi.
I thought that BRYTE Camp would be the same. But it was completely different. Everyone is from different countries, continents, cultures… from Burundi, Congo, Tanzania, Mexico, Nepal, Iraq, Burma. I made friends.
After my first summer at BRYTE Camp, I could say, “Hi, how are you, my name is Etienne.” When school started, I knew what was going on instead of saying “yes, yes, yes” and then going home without any idea of what I learned that day. My English is still not quite there, but I can explain myself well enough. If I get stopped by the police, I can defend myself.
I come back to BRYTE Camp because I don’t want to lose the opportunity to get some knowledge. I want to write a book so people like me will want to learn and won’t make my mistake. Maybe it would be a published book, or maybe I’d keep it for myself, so I don’t forget: where you come from is who you are.