During World War II, Mary Edgar, Founding Director of Glen Bernard Camp for girls, organized a group of alumnae to offer a camp respite to girls from the UK to escape bombs and horrible air raids. The camp was called Shangri-La. To celebrate their 95th season in the spirit of May Edgar, the camp decided to invite twenty-four Syrian girls to enjoy a Canadian camping experience.
Throughout the winter of 2015/16, Director Joc Palm and Associate Director Kim Graydon began their research and preparations to launch GBC for Syria. After meeting with various organizations and agencies, they began to receive applications from several Syrian families new to Canada. With an album of camp photographs showing the site and the activities, they visited each of the applicants’ families across the province with one or more of their sponsors and when necessary with the assistance of a translator. They spent hours with each family, answering questions and building trust.
One incident was memorable. Kim had answered “no” to one girl’s question, “Is there electric?” because at GBC the girls do not have hydro in their cabins. All of a sudden, the two sisters looked at one another, began speaking quickly to their father in Arabic and rolling their eyes. The father then spoke to them somewhat sternly. When Joc and Kim asked the translator what he had said to his daughters, he replied, “He told them if they could survive a year and a half in a refugee camp in Jordan, they could survive a week at Glen Bernard without electricity!” Amused, Joc reassured the girls that yes, there was hydro to the main buildings around camp just not in the sleeping cabins.
Giving consideration to the language barrier, GBC decided it was not necessary to have translators at camp. Campers learn by seeing and doing. They knew that the Syrian campers with better English could help the girls with little English.
Swimming ability was a barrier. Of the twenty-six girls, only two could swim. Fortunately, the camp waterfront has a sandy beach and a long stretch of shallow water. The girls were advised that if they were concerned, all they had to do was stand up. The waterfront staff discussed how to help the newcomers feel safe. In some cases, everyone wore lifejackets to play in the water.
The Syrian campers lived for their week’s stay with GBC campers in various cabins during all sessions. The veteran campers discovered that the new campers were friendly and enjoyed camp as much as they did. However, one afternoon they were reminded that these girls had experiences foreign to them During a thunder storm, one Syrian camper remarked, “The thunder sounds just like bombs exploding.” Nevertheless, nobody dwelt on this graphic comparison, and the girls continued happily with their indoor play.
The experience was a great success for both the newcomers and GBC campers. It is the camp’s intention with support from alumnae to invite all the Syrian girls to return if they choose for the length of time appropriate to their age and also to bring a friend.
Kudos to GBC and the many camps across Canada that welcomed Syrian newcomers to their camps last summer!