Photos courtesy of Masjid Al-Qu’ran

Imran Davis, teacher Maryam Abu Baker’s son, gets hands-on experience with beekeeping during Summer School.

“What do our kids need? What are they missing?” Mariam Abu Baker of Milwaukee asked herself and her friend Dr. Faiza Hashim of Franklin, who has a medical degree from Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan. The two were working with others to plan the program for Masjid Al-Qur’ans 2023 Summer Camp, which will take place July 7 – 21 at Masjid Al-Qur’an, 11723 W. Brown Deer Road, Milwaukee.

What they don’t need are coloring sheets or learning games on a computer, they concluded. “Summer school has to be so different from everyday school or Sunday school. Why? Because it’s summer!” said Abu Baker, who has a degree in early childhood education and special education from the University of Jordan.

Children today grow up attached to cell phones, she explained in an interview Saturday with Wisconsin Muslim Journal. “We want them to detach from technology for a while and give them something much bigger.”

Along with Imam Hafiz Shafique and other members of Masjid Al-Qur’an’s community, the summer camp teachers created a unique program that aims to nourish students’ appreciation of God’s creation and their place in it. Islamic learning is incorporated into hands-on activities, including gardening, pottery, archery, beekeeping, nature hikes and a community bonfire.

Parents and community volunteers are encouraged to participate in any and all activities, Abu Baker and Hashim said. And they do! 

One student’s grandmother regularly helped serve the homemade meals the teachers made for lunch. “She came every day. It’s a big job,” Hashim said. “We couldn’t have done it without her.” (Pre-packaged food is only served during field trips.)

Parents join their children on weekly field trips to a nature center. The masjid’s bee-keeper teaches interested students how to care for the hives and create frames for honeycombs. Teens help younger students with woodcraft and gardening. 

“The whole point of this is not just for the kids; it is about building community,” Hashim said in a telephone interview Monday. “Parents and other members of the community are all welcome. We want the kids to be part of something bigger, to know we can all contribute and we are all wanted.”

Masjid Al-Qur’an’s two-week Summer Camp is for children ages 5 to 15. It runs July 7 – 15, Monday – Thursday, 10:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. and Friday Family Nights, July 7, 14 and 21. The registration fee of $75 helps cover daily snacks, lesson materials, recreational activities and field trips. Register here. 

Financial assistance and payment plans are available for anyone who needs it. Call Imam Shafique at (414) 795-4677 for more information.

Teaching values

“Our main focus is to help our kids learn values,” said Imam Shafique in an interview Wednesday with the Wisconsin Muslim Journal. “For example, they will have homemade food every single day. Fresh soup, vegetables, dishes made with the help of volunteers and teachers. We teach them the importance of making healthy food choices. We don’t use disposable dishes and utensils. When we serve the food, we teach them to take only what they need and to finish their food so we are not throwing away leftovers. They are learning not to waste food, to care for themselves and for the environment.

“We have cleaning stations where the children wash their dishes. This is a job someone does at home. If it’s mom or dad or whoever, we want them to appreciate it.”

The students engage in nature walks and activities like identifying plants and creatures living in ponds. They also care for animals and insects, including goats and bees. 

“We want them to know Almighty God has not created anything in vain,” he said. “Everything has a purpose. Nowadays, we don’t pay attention to these things. We undervalue these things. Our kids don’t learn to appreciate these things. They don’t even know where their food comes from. There is a whole story about the process food goes through before it gets to their plates.”

The summer school classes maintain a high ratio of teachers and volunteers to students, Imam Shafique added. There are two teachers and several volunteers working with each of the five age groups. “Our summer school is not like a traditional class system where you have a lecture and assignments. It’s all hands-on activities.” 

“Our kids spend a lot of time on their gadgets and don’t even know how beautiful this world is. We want them to learn to pay attention and learn directly from nature. We get them involved with the basics.”

Building community

Abu Baker has been involved in Masjid Al-Qur’an’s Summer Camp since 2011. Hashim is partnering with her to plan and execute the program for the third time this year.

It started as a traditional summer school program. Community members have contributed ideas and effort over the years that have pushed it to evolve, Abu Baker said. A key idea they agreed on was to make the masjid a fun place for children and their families.

“When it comes to going to the mosque, sometimes it feels like having to drag the kids. They ask, ‘Why do I have to go?’ We need to make it a place where they feel comfortable and safe, that they can be a part of. We need it to be a place that nourishes their minds with new ideas—ideas that they can come up with.”

Masjid Al-Qur’an offers a unique setting, she added. It sits on 8 acres that include a fruit orchard, vegetable garden and beehives developed to create educational opportunities for youth and the community. Students participate in growing vegetables and fruit, tending goats and beekeeping with other community members.

“We want to slow things down and nourish them,” Abu Baker said. “One day I had some 9-year-olds who just wanted to talk about stuff. So, we talked about anything they wanted. 

“Another day, I brought yarn and we finger-knitted crowns for the kids. They got to stick flowers in them and they looked so cute. It was one of the best days I had in summer camp. It was just connecting. The kids would come up to show me something and go nearby to play again.

“We would like the parents to be even more involved. Kids enjoy it so much when their parents are there. You can see it in their faces. ‘Mom, look at this!’ ‘Dad, did you see that?’”

Hashim recalled a potluck dinner last year when “so many parents volunteered to bring something, even at the last minute, because their kids enjoyed the camp so much.” The parents’ engagement was a big part of why their children enjoyed it, she said. 

“After being involved the past two years, I have seen what this summer camp has done, not just for the kids but for the parents as well.”