Last week, a small group of us bounced along high mountain roads following the Vaksht River up into the remote Rasht Valley in Tajikistan. We were stymied when we reached a point where a chunk of the road had collapsed in to the roaring water below. Eventually, we found a detour by climbing a dirt track into the mountains. Six hours after departing the capital of Dushanbe, we reached our destination -- Camp America -- in the village of Hoyt. Like a scene from The Sound of Music, we were in lush green meadows full of wild flowers and the occasional cow and donkey, surrounded by snow covered peaks. Upon arrival, 48 Tajik girls and boys ages 9-14 were wrapping up seven days of learning baseball, American football, frisbee, rock climbing, arts and crafts, drama, and basic English lessons.
The camps were organized by two American volunteers who have spent the last few summers in Tajikistan, bringing a little piece of America to some of the most isolated corners of the world. The children were divided into groups by age, each led by a young Tajik who has spent a year in high school in the United States as part of the State Department's Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program. The counselors at this camp had been to high schools in Texas, Michigan, and Oregon.
Applications far exceed spaces available and the campers are chosen by lottery with equal numbers of boys and girls. Local school directors organize community support to provide accommodation for the counselors, provide a place to hold the camp, organize transportation for the campers, and procure food and supplies.
The first day of camp is the most difficult. The children are shy and nervous. When asked about the United States, the children know there are 50 states and that the capital is Washington, D.C. In fact, more appear to know this fact than that the capital of Tajikistan is Dushanbe.
Throughout the week, other village children gathered at the fringes of camp to watch, and soon they were reproducing their own versions of games and activities in neighboring fields. While the counselors engaged in a post-camp game of touch football, small boys soon undertook their own version with a crabapple as the ball.
The camps end with an assembly where the kids sing the songs they have learned. Each group presents a skit they wrote and rehearsed in drama class. Finally, prizes are awarded and the campers vote on their favorite activity. The campers we visited choose learning English as their favorite.
For the organizers and counselors, meeting former campers again is a highlight, knowing they have made a positive impact on these children's lives. A life touched, mission accomplished.
Follow the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs on Facebook and Twitter.August 12 marks International Youth Day. In December 2009, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming the year commencing this International Youth Day as the International Year of Youth. Learn more at www.un.org.