by Lou Mancinelli

This summer marks the 10th anniversary of the Al-Bustan Camp hosted at the Springside School, where each July since 2006 the campus has become a hub of international experience. The two-and-a-half week arts and education camp is designed to spread Arabic culture throughout the Philadelphia region to youths ages six through 17.

The program that began at the Morris Arboretum with 18 campers is the seed that grew the past 10 years to become Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, a citywide initiative that brings Arabic culture to thousands of students and community members at schools and other organizations. (Al-Bustan, which means “the garden” in Arabic, also strives to promote cross-cultural understanding and respect among people of all backgrounds.)

It’s been featured on WHYY/Channel 12, hosted renowned international artists and this May was the recipient of a $50,000 Knight Foundation grant. Next fall, students at the University of Pennsylvania will have the opportunity to enroll in a Philadelphia Music Arab Ensemble course created by an Al-Bustan program. Music director Hannah Khoury won a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, (a prestigious award given to Philadelphia artists) and was also the recipient of the America-Israel Scholarship and Qattan Foundation Award. Last semester, Khoury taught a class at Swarthmore College.

Yet as interesting as the organization is, as big as it sounds and as influential as it has the potential to be, the entire operation is run out of a West Philadelphia basement in its founder’s family home.

When she founded the camp, Al-Bustan executive director Hazami Sayed felt burned out from her work designing affordable housing as a New York City architect. After close to 10 years in Manhattan, plus two years practicing in Philadelphia, where she moved with her husband and two sons in 1998 when her husband was hired to teach real estate at the University of Pennsylvania, Sayed wanted to do something different.

She started the camp in 2002, somewhat out of personal interest for her own two sons, now 16 and 12, who were raised speaking both English and Arabic. A year later, she incorporated the group to be a non-profit organization. “I wanted to find a way they could practice their language skills in a fun and engaging way with other kids,” said Sayed during a recent interview.

After some brainstorming, research and networking, Sayed created a camp where young people are exposed to glimpses into the film, drama, traditional dance, history, science and visual art of Arabic culture.

Each year, Sayed and her staff integrate a theme amidst the everyday activities. This summer, campers will explore the arts, culture and environment of Lebanon. Past investigations include the United Arab Emirates, the Asian/Mediterranean Silk Road, the olive tree and the folktale character Juha.

Al-Bustan organizers and teachers bring children and youth together with educators, artists and professionals of different ages, ethnicities and religious faiths. This July, the work of Lebanese children and young-adults author and illustrator Nadine Touma and pop-star Sairuz will be showcased.

Past visiting artists include acclaimed Palestinian-American poet, novelist, teacher and anthologist Naomi Shihab Nye, award-winning poet, playwright and writer Nathalie Handal and winner of the best Arab-American Book Award for Children and Young Adults last year, Ibtisam Barakat.

Campers will read the books, sing the songs and perform their own renditions of traditional and modern Lebanese dances and other art-forms at the camp’s culminating celebration and performance July 28 at Springside from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

“One way to introduce kids to language is through the arts,” said Sayed, who was born in Lebanon to a Lebanese mother and Egyptian father. She came to America in 1983 to study economics at Stanford University. She later worked for the United Nations Development Program after earning her master’s in architecture in 1991 from Columbia University.

For the first five years of Al-Bustan’s existence, Sayed worked on a volunteer basis. She could not afford to retain camp counselors and teachers throughout the school year. But as the camp and its reputation grew, funding was found, and Sayed expanded her camp into a year-round institution.

While handling the logistics out of the basement, Sayed began to offer programs at schools and community institutions during the school year. Other programs include weekend language and arts workshops hosted at the Rotunda in University City, performances by musicians and other artists, and an Arab percussion ensemble (from which the UPENN program evolved).

“To me,” said music and dance instructor Hafez El Ali Kotain, “it’s personally very important because the main thing is to teach culture to [the] youth and other organizations.”

Born in Venezuela and raised in Syria, El Ali Kotain started to study percussion at age 16. His travels and experience led him to combine the rhythm of three types of music — the samba of Brazil, the Latino salsa and Arabic malfouf. “It’s a beautiful combination between three different cultures, three types of music and three different rhythms,” he said.

“The first year [camp] was mostly all Arabic and young kids,” said Temple University junior pre-med student Mokhtar Bdeir, a 19-year-old Jenkintown resident who has attended the camp since its inception and this year will be a paid senior camp counselor.

“How its grown shows how many people in the area are interested in Arabic culture. A lot of them have no background, just a strange curiosity. [Al-Bustan] has been getting more diversity from all kinds of economic, cultural and social backgrounds… The first year, no one ever thought we could get [internationally acclaimed Arab musician] Simon Sheehan to play in Philadelphia. But this organization is doing it.”

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