Animated gif of a bunch of brightly-coloured illustrated hands overlaying a photo. The hands disappear one by one to reveal a photo of a group of kids and two camp councillors standing in a field.

Photo illustration by June Anderson / photography by H.appi Camper

“They’ve been deprived of being children”

This free camp teaches refugee kids about equality, diversity—and how to have fun in Canada

It was the chocolate that started it. In February 2016, Mazen El-Baba and his mother Massa El-Bizri were running from hotel to hotel, volunteering translation help for some of the many Syrian refugees who were arriving in the GTA. El-Baba, whose family immigrated from Lebanon in 2005, noticed immediately that the kids—all of whom were fleeing violence, and many of whom had spent years in refugee camps—were exhibiting “odd” behaviour, like swarming anyone who was offering treats.

“The appropriate thing in our culture is to say ‘Oh, no, thank you,’” he explains. “When they insist, you say ‘No, thank you.’ They insist again. Then you take one, acting as if you really don’t want the chocolate, but deep inside you really do. These kids, as soon as you open the bag, they fill up their pockets, take as much as they can, and run. They’ve been raised in an environment of such extremes—one day you could eat, one day you couldn’t. They’ve been deprived of being children.”

Male camp councillor stands in a park and is embraced by one young camper while another stands in front of him.

El-Baba knows that the psychological scars of children who, in some cases, have spent their entire lives in a war-torn region, go way deeper than their culturally frowned-upon eagerness for free snacks. He thought about how crappy it had been for him when he arrived at age 12.

“If I went through all this hardship, can you imagine what these kids are going through? Their situation is much more severe than mine was. So, I said to my mother: ‘What about a camp?’”

He wanted to create a place where the kids could just be kids, but at the same time to help them improve their language skills and give them a crash course in Canadian culture. “It’s sort of two birds with one stone,” he says, laughing. “Besides, it’s very Canadian for kids to go to camp! I never got to go.”

El-Baba, who was working on his masters in neuroscience at the time, contacted his local MP. Between a federal grant, local partnerships—including one with OISE that helped him develop the literacy program—and donations from friends and family, he somehow managed to cobble together enough money for funding (and craft supplies!) to open the doors of H.appi that very summer.

The free camp for kids ages eight to 15 kicked off its third season in July 2018 in the Thorncliffe Park area of Toronto, where the waiting list is so long they’ve simply stopped adding kids to it. While the counsellors—many of them Arabic-speaking—are paid, El-Baba and his mother’s hours are all volunteer.

A group of seven young campers dressed in bright colours sit with two cam councillors in a big group at a picnic table in front of a tree in a field.

“All the counsellors go through cultural-sensitivity training,” says El-Baba, who is now heading into his second year of med school at the University of Toronto. “We talk about some of the stigmas in the Middle East and ask what the experience of these kids has been. How can we put ourselves in their shoes? When a child misbehaves, the idea isn’t that something is wrong with the child. The idea is that this child has gone through a lot.”

The counsellors at H.appi are also very aware that most of the kids come from socially conservative, often strictly religious, societies where mental health isn’t discussed, gender roles are rigid—in year one, the kids balked at being put in groups where boys and girls were mixed together—and acceptance of any sort of non-hetero sexual orientation is a definite no-go.

“The kids said: ‘We saw two men holding hands at the mall, what’s that about?’” says El-Baba. “We wanted to teach them about diversity and inclusivity, but how do you do that with a nine-year-old?”

The counsellors used that opening to do a craft where all the kids got to decorate two outlines of their hands—one with just their name, and the other however they wanted. “Coloured paper, throw glitter everywhere, the kids went nuts!” recalls El-Baba. Then they pinned the two hands up side-by-side and asked: “Which one looks nicer?” The kids said the decorated hands because everyone was able to do what they like.

A female camp councillor crouches down next to two campers playing on the floor of a gym.

“Then we said, ‘Let’s think about our society, let’s think about the different talents, the different cultures, the different sexual orientations—that’s what makes this country beautiful,’” says El-Baba. “We got an earful from the parents about that! But we were very frank. We told them that this is something normal here that your child needs to understand.”

For the 2018 season there was only enough funding for 55 spots at H.appi Camp (down from 222 last year), even though the need remains great. And the demands of medical school aren’t leaving El-Baba much spare time to tend to his passion project. He worries H.appi Camp won’t be able to continue without a dedicated person at the helm.

“If I had some millionaire fund us, I could hire an executive director. I just need one person!” he says hopefully. “My dream is for this camp to be found in every community in Canada.”

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