MARBLEHEAD – When Salima Slimane first attended an open house for the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore summer camps wearing a headscarf, she was a little apprehensive about how she might be received.
“I was definitely a little nervous. I am generally very outspoken and can stand up for myself, but my son does not know how to self-advocate in general and is often an easy target given his disability, and I was worried about how he would be perceived as a Muslim,” said Slimane, a native of Algeria who teaches Arabic and French at Boston University and lives in Malden.
Although Slimane reported a few “charged glances” from passersby, she said there were many more warm smiles as she dropped off her son, who’s on the autism spectrum, for his second summer of camp in Marblehead. Because of well-trained staff supervising Anis while he swims and plays, Slimane says he is enjoying a fun, safe, camp experience.
“He was so happy there – he always asks when he’ll get to go there next,” she said.
This summer, Slimane is one of three Muslim families to send children with disabilities to JCC camps. She convinced her friend, Imene Bouziane, who is also a Malden resident of Algerian descent, that the JCC would best accommodate their needs for a reasonable price. Ali Abdalkadir and Fatema Abdulmajeed, Marblehead residents who emigrated from Iraq in 2009, have enrolled their daughter Leena, who has Down syndrome.
Slimane has Jewish friends, and developed an interest in American Jewish literature in college.
Bouziane, who lived in Algeria and France before moving to the United States, says that two of her closest friends are Jewish, including one who has helped her find the right care for her sons. Abdalkadir remembers Jewish friends and neighbors in Iraq, where he even listened to Israeli radio stations broadcast in Arabic and English.
Abdalkadir also remembers that a Jewish friend of his father helped take him back and forth from his school. “He loved me so much – I was shocked when my dad told me he had to immigrate to Israel,” he said.
“I didn’t have any reluctance because it’s Jewish,” said Bouziane of the JCC. “I believe that all religions can coexist together … [my friend and I] joke a lot about how we’re from two very separate religions, but we share so many similarities that it never made me question anything based on religion. I think that both Judaism and Islam are religions of peace, of love, family-oriented, honesty, compassion, empathy, people wanting to help other people without expecting anything in return.”
Though Abdalkadir is aware of political differences between Jews and Muslims, he says there’s no conflict at JCC camps. “Let’s leave politics to the politicians,” he said.
All three families have found a place that’s willing to give their children the camp experience they need, one that has resulted in a marked improvement in Abdalkadir’s daughter Leena.
“We’re noticing that psychologically she has improved – she’s starting to look like a different personality when she goes to the JCC,” he said. “Even the weekends when she doesn’t go to the JCC, she says she misses being there.”
Bouziane had difficulty finding a summer program for her sons, Amir and Yusuf, who are both on the autism spectrum, that she could afford. She worked with Melissa Caplan, the director of the JCC’s inclusion camp program, to figure out the supports her children would need, and Scott Kaplan, the camp controller, to find a suitable payment plan.
“I’ve never heard a ‘no’ coming from them, and it’s so refreshing to hear that people are working to try to find solutions with you, and not in a million years you think you’d find that support,” Bouziane said. “It’s such a nice feeling to know that they’re here to help, and there’s no contingency on anything – they’re just trying to be genuinely nice to you.
“It put everyone at ease for [Amir] to have just the right amount of support for him to be successful during camp. At first, I had actually originally signed up Amir for two weeks, but because he did so well and he loves going to camp, I ended up sending him for five weeks.”
Abdalkadir and Slimane appreciate the compassion and expertise of Caplan, who works as a special educator at Glover Elementary School in Marblehead. Abdalkadir noted that Caplan works at his daughter’s elementary school, which is a good source of comfort and continuity for her.
“It takes a great soul and a wonderful teacher to push for a program which values inclusion for special needs students,” said Slimane. “Melissa did it at the JCC, and by including minorities like Muslims in a predominantly Jewish facility, those at the J are the true heroes of change.”