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A chance to be kids: Portland camp helps refugees build trust, community

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A chance to be kids: Portland camp helps refugees build trust, community

PORTLAND — With their legs dangling off the edge of an old concrete watchtower on Cow Island, Portland middle and high school students last week had a panoramic view of Casco Bay over the island's tree tops.

It was a sunny, warm day with little wind, where the only interruption to the otherwise calm scenery was the occasional ferry slowly charting between islands.

But their attention was elsewhere.

One by one, wearing bright red helmets and black harnesses, they dropped off the tower's edge, sailed down a hundred-yard zip line cable – and screamed. 

The exercise was one of several activities, which included rock climbing, kayaking, swimming and raft building, at the third, week-long Cow Island day camp hosted by two nonprofits in coordination with Portland Public Schools. 

While many camps offer similar activities, this one is designed for a unique population: children who are refugees. The activities are intended to promote trust and confidence among the kids, all of whom were forced to flee their native countries because of wars, oppression or natural disasters.

The camp is organized by Rippleffect, a youth and community development nonprofit that owns Cow Island, in coordination with the Center for Grieving Children and the School Department.

The kids are all part of the Center's Multicultural Peer Support program, which brings together kids who have experienced significant loss and trauma in their lives. Through peer communication, the program's goal is to promote healing from grief by developing coping skills, positive relationships and self confidence.

"We work on trust-building with all the kids, but the need is much greater here," said Anna Marie Klein-Christie, executive director of Rippleffect.

Extra responsibility can be thrust on these kids in particular, because they often learn to speak English before their parents, something that can add to their already challenging situations, she said.

"They often have to act older than they are," Klein-Christie said. "Here, they can be kids."

This year, the kids came from four countries: Iraq, South Sudan, Somalia and Cambodia. But they share similar, and often, tragic stories. They've been dramatically forced out of their homes and had close family members die.

Three girls at the camp were part of a student-leadership group.

Two of them, Nayumouch Gai and San San Kong, are sisters, entering the ninth and seventh grades, respectively. Born in Uganda, they moved to South Sudan, and were forced to leave in 2003.

The other girl, Naumu Charles, fled Uganda with her mother and other relatives in 2007, although many still remain in Africa, she said.

They also share another experience: their fathers died last year.

In conversation, the girls jumped between topics, from serious and tragic to light and humorous, sometimes in the same sentence. They shifted from talking about death to how they don't like doing the dishes.

Marie Sheffield, the multicultural coordinator for the center, said the center aims to help the kids heal and overcome cultural challenges. The Rippleffect camp helps the kids to find commonalities and build stronger bonds through leadership teams, she said.

"All these children have been though a lot of loss and change in their lives," Sheffield said. "The largest part is for the kids not to feel alone and that they're part of something."

While the camp is only in its third year, the center's multicultural program is now in its 17th year.

The camp is kind of a continuation of work the center does with the kids throughout the school year, where they attend community peer support group meetings.

The peer approach to talking about grief and loss is intended to be therapeutic, not clinical, which Sheffield said helps build communities for the kids and their parents.

The benefit of the camp is that it allows the kids have fun, but also work toward overcoming hardships, she said.

"It's really about here we are now, how can we move forward," Sheffield said.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.