Camp “Ayandeh,” or “future,” turned out to be a much more appropriate name than we could have imagined almost ten years ago when we voted to make it the official name of the camp. In an effort to create a brand, we also created a door to the future.
Ten years ago, when I was 19 and Camp Ayandeh was just the first annual “Iranian-American Leadership Camp,” I was surrounded by Iranians, but lacked community. I was fluent in Persian, but had no use for it. I respected and valued my heritage, but didn’t need it.
So, when I arrived at the first camp, I was skeptical. Where were all the “grown-ups”? How would these young organizers teach anything of substance? What was the point of this camp anyway? Less than five minutes after meeting the first year staff, the skepticism melted away. What I saw was a group of awe-inspiring Iranian Americans around my own age who wanted a camp that was inclusive, supportive, and positive but still allowed for space for critical thought, uncomfortable but necessary conversations, and acknowledgement of our shortcomings. They wanted a place that could take all of the tough stuff and make something productive and positive out of it. This was not what I expected at all.
I remember on the very first day of training for the very first camp, Narges Bajoghli, IAAB’s Co-Founder, was clear that we shouldn’t call the campers “kids.” We wanted to empower them to be leaders, not treat them like children. This kind of deliberate action is what created Camp Ayandeh. Over the years, we spent months coming up with creative activities, brainstorming themes, and crafting the perfect camp groups. We stayed up late every night at camp planning for the next day, debriefing what went well and what we could improve on, how to make sure every camper felt included, and how to make each exercise and activity memorable. We struggled with whether and how to discuss politics and history. We trained on how to discuss topics that were considered “taboo” or controversial responsibly. Sometimes, we argued and cried, sometimes we laughed and danced, sometimes we gave up and went to bed, ready to sleep on it and get up at dawn tomorrow to try again.
For years, I wondered what made us come back after that first year and keep coming back. Why did we count down the weeks until the next camp, starting from the very day we got home from the last one? Why did we cry when we left? What was the empty feeling we had for weeks after we got home? Of course, the curriculum was one factor. There was the serious material—the brainstorming and learning and collaborating. Along with the formalized learning, there are so many other things that happen at Camp Ayandeh that are fun and creative and interesting and wonderful. Ta’arof competitions, impromptu jam sessions and dance parties, vasati (Iranian dodgeball–which I learned for the first time at Ayandeh), the universal enthusiasm for chelo kabab….but there had to be something else that made us all feel so connected.
Each year, Camp Ayandeh’s attendees become a family. They spend their meals together, learn together, play together, go through hard times together, laugh and cry together. The infrastructure of the camp encourages friendship and collaboration. The first year, every camper and counselor received a very spot-on, personalized “superlative” award, clearly showing how well we got to know each other in just one week. Then, when you say your last tearful goodbye at the end of your week together, that family endures. You still laugh and cry together. Your friends from Ayandeh are the first you call when you get into the college of your choice, get your first job, get engaged. They’re the first people you think of when you need a place to stay in a far away city. Often, they’re the ones who know you best.
Only with five years of distance did I realize what made it so easy for us to establish these lifelong friendships. We had a very strong common foundation: I think that we all, in some form or another, have dreams for our future Diaspora (another thing I first learned from camp) community—we want the “Iranian” part of our hyphenated identities to be a prominent and fulfilling part of our lives. Some of us may have always felt a connection, and some of us develop it at camp. But all of us came for a reason, and all of us walk away with a sense of purpose.
I used to worry about our community’s future. Would we, as a community, be inclusive, tolerant, supportive? Would the generations that follow us be able to recognize their complicated identities—to be both Iranian and something else, or many other things, and to value all the aspects of their identities? Would they struggle like we did or would it come more naturally because of our work? Because of Ayandeh, I don’t worry about our Diaspora anymore. Camp Ayandeh is a microcosm of our larger community and it’s everything I could hope for. Ayandeh provides a space to think critically about our community and what we hope for its future. Alumni of Ayandeh are activists, doctors-to-be, professionals, travelers, artists, musicians, politicians, caregivers, poets. They are tolerant, supportive, cooperative. They are taste-makers and pioneers. Like me, not all of them are involved directly with the Iranian-American Diaspora, but each of them makes a lasting impact on our community. We created an “Ayandeh” reflective of our collective hopes and wishes for this community, and I couldn’t be prouder, or more honored, to have had the opportunity to be there at the start and still watch it flourish today.
Nakkisa Akhavan was a counselor at IAAB’s very first camp in 2006 and later served as IAAB’s Public Relations Director and Director of the 2009 Fourth International Conference on the Iranian Diaspora. Nakkisa participated in Camp Ayandeh yearly until 2009. She’s an alumna of UC Berkeley and UCLA School of Law where she specialized in Critical Race Studies. Nakkisa is a practicing civil rights and employment discrimination attorney and currently works in the federal public sector as a Trial Attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Everything she’s expressed here is in her personal capacity only.