By: Omar Malik
Assistant Director of Programs
Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco’s Camp Mendocino
I grew up in Saudi Arabia. I spent my youth hanging out with Arab kids from all over the world—including Yemen, Palestine, Lebanon, and many other countries. My community included many people who were Arab, including close friends and their families, mentors, and, later, colleagues and coworkers. Having this connection from such a young age made a big impact on me, and Arab culture is close to my heart.
I love being part of an organization that embraces all youth, always looking for ways to support their positive development. The mission of Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco (BGCSF) is to inspire and enable all young people, especially those from disadvantaged circumstances, to realize their full potential as productive, responsible, and caring citizens. To fulfill this promise, BGCSF must provide a welcoming and inclusive space for all kids, and I’m proud to say that we do.
April is Arab American Heritage Month and I am excited to both reflect on what this month means to me personally and share how BGCSF and Camp Mendocino engage Arab youth and their families. Because of my personal experiences, I often get asked for advice on how BGCSF can connect with Arab American communities to address their needs. I encourage people to ask questions, talk with both youth and families, and really listen to their answers. From there, I encourage people to take the time to understand the uniqueness of their American experience. As with other ethnicities, our work starts with making it a priority to build meaningful and durable relationships with the youth and families.
When I started working at BGCSF seven years ago as the Education Director at our Mission Clubhouse, I quickly identified that there was a large Arab American immigrant youth population in the local community that was not being served. The families needed the wraparound services that BGCSF offers such as academic support, enrichment activities, healthy lifestyles programming including Behavioral Health Services, and youth workforce development. I knew our Arab American immigrant communities weren’t going to find this holistic support at any other community-based organization. But I also knew from experience that I needed to focus on building relationships and establishing trust before jumping into a conversation about services.
I started by reaching out to Mission High School and encouraging Arab students to come to the Mission Clubhouse after school to hang out and spend time with other teens. Instead of emphasizing programming, we emphasized building connections. It wasn’t long before more Arab youth were joining their friends at the Club and getting involved in all aspects of Club life, from attending field trips to participating in one-on-one tutoring. Soon, more Arab American families were reaching out to the Club for support and guidance.
During this time, an Arab American teen, who had recently lost his father, started coming to the Club regularly. I remember being instantly impressed with his acute understanding of how BGCSF could help him and his family. He was determined to get the most out of his Club membership, diving into our College Prep program, applying for our college scholarships, and always checking in with other staff mentors and me on how to best position himself for success. I was thrilled to be able to work with him. Recently, he graduated from San Francisco State University and came back to visit. I was so proud of him. He brought me sweets, an Arab tradition after a big event occurs. I will always remember him saying, “I wanted you to know that I didn’t forget about you, and I know you had a huge part in me making it this far.” That was a big moment for me and a huge reminder of why we do the work we do and how far our reach extends.
Today, as Assistant Camp Director for Programs at BGCSF’s residential summer camp, Camp Mendocino, I see the incredible impact that the Camp experience has on Bay Area youth. When I started in the role, I immediately thought about the Arab American kids I worked with and how much they would enjoy and grow if they came to Camp. Getting Arab American youth to come to Camp only happens when a bond of trust exists. For an Arab family to allow their children—especially their young girls—to leave their family and attend sleepaway camp is a big deal! To attract youth and win the support of families, we worked with Arab families to create a session at Camp Mendocino that provided Halal food and made it comfortable for youth to pray during the day if they desired. It is a testimony to the trust and confidence that the Arab American community has in BGCSF that in Summer 2022 we served more Arab American youth at Camp than ever before and we are expecting to grow that number even more this summer.
One of my key partners in encouraging Arab American youth to attend Camp is our Tenderloin Clubhouse Director, Mike Vuong. The Tenderloin Clubhouse has a strong Arab American membership base and, over time, Mike and the Tenderloin team have built a true partnership with kids and families. They did this through meaningful dialogue and great care.
Staff at BGCSF and Camp Mendocino are passionate about recognizing every kid for exactly who they are. Appreciating different cultures is an important part of this, so across all levels of our organization, we make every effort to be inclusive. Staff are constantly looking for ways to engage all young people who need our services, helping each to realize their full potential.
I am thrilled that my colleagues want to tap into my unique experiences to understand Arab culture. I’m happy to offer curriculum ideas, to weigh in on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging initiatives; and to support member outreach. I feel fortunate to work for an organization that is so open to hearing different perspectives and so capable of evolving to meet every child right where they are.
Celebrating heritage months is an important part of the Club’s commitment to celebrating various different communities and cultures. For more information on how BGCSF and Camp Mendocino are celebrating Arab Americans in April, follow us on social media @BGCSF and @Camp_Mendocino.