At Jewish-Arab summer camp, children declare color war on cancer
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'Coexistence works here because it's not our focus'

At Jewish-Arab summer camp, children declare color war on cancer

Rather than offering a Make-a-Wish type of experience, staff at Sunrise seeks to give patients and their siblings opportunity to just be kids

Every day at Camp Sunrise begins with children from every age group gathering together at the amphitheater for a talent show.

The campers organize and emcee the affair; and on this particular day, 8-year-old Liron is called on stage to perform.

Katrix & Doron Biton’s “She’s Free” starts blasting from the loud speakers and the young girl sings along without missing a single word of the rather fast-paced summer hit.

Liron finishes to a round of applause from the nearly 200 campers and staff in the crowd and Samer is called up next.

Campers at Camp Sunrise, August 9, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Another song begins playing but instead of belting out the words, the 9-year-old drops to the floor and starts breakdancing as friends cheer below.

The scene — which included quite a few counselors trying to chase down children uninterested in watching — seemed rather standard for any summer camp.

That’s exactly what the staff at Camp Sunrise, which caters to kids suffering from cancer and their siblings, is aiming for.

“It’s not about taking kids with cancer to [Disney World], but rather showing them that they’re just like everyone else — doing the same activities, running around, going crazy and having a good time,” said 27-year-old counselor Lior Svirsky.

The campus where he works in the central town of Beit Yehoshua is just one of three camps across the country that have been serving cancer patients as well as their siblings since 2010.

Campers and staff at Camp Sunrise, August 9, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“The experience is no less important for the siblings,” explained director Hagar Zakai. “During the rest of the year, they often have to take a back seat to their brother or sister undergoing treatment, but here they are given the opportunity to be in front.”

While the camp operates primarily in Hebrew, roughly 20 percent of participants at Beit Yehoshua are Arab-Israeli, so instructions for activities are explained bilingually.

At the campuses in Beersheba down south and Ramat Yochanan up north, the amount of Arab-Israeli campers climbs to 50%.

We weren’t trying to create a coexistence camp, it just kind of happened that way naturally,” said Zakai.

Hagar Zakai, director of Camp Sunrise, August 9, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

While a number of children who knew less Hebrew preferred to remain closer to Arab-Israeli counselors for occasional translation help, there was no clear sectoral divide felt.

“Coexistence works here specifically because it’s not the focus of the camp,” explained Svirsky.

The counselor, who has staffed the camp for four years, added that many of the activities are designed to use a minimal amount of language. “Whether it is sports, music, dance or arts and crafts, there are so many other ways to get kids to communicate and connect,” he said.

While there is no way to avoid some of the cultural differences, 22-year-old counselor Sewar Abu-Raiya said they also pose as a learning opportunity for the campers as well as herself. 

“It’s a small thing, but it was funny to learn how for us (Arabs), swearing is a really big deal, but for Israelis it’s like no big deal!” she said laughing.

Campers and staff at Camp Sunrise, August 9, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

And just like at any other camp, some of the friendships at Sunrise often develop into romance.

“We’ve had quite a few love stories between Arab and Jewish campers,” said the smiling Abu-Raiya.

Sunrise operates for a three week session during the summer and for a week during the Passover holiday. The three Israeli sites run under the umbrella of the US organization Sunrise Association Camps, which was founded four years prior and includes campuses in New York, Baltimore and Atlanta.

“For many of the campers undergoing treatment, this is the only social interaction they have,” said Zakai.

Campers at Camp Sunrise, August 9, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Parents of sick children are often unable to send their kids to school as their weak immune systems cannot withstand such environments. But at Sunrise, every detail of every program is premeditated in order to ensure the health and safety of the some 150 children, who attend at no cost to their families.

In cooking class — a favorite among campers of all ages — participants all wear protective gloves. While Zakai acknowledged that such a precaution might be taken at summer camps in America, they would not likely be considered at other summer camps in Israel, leaving children more susceptible to bacteria.

The four-to-one camper-to-counselor ratio means nobody is left unattended. Sunrise is also run in close coordination with the various hospitals where the children are being treated throughout the year and a doctor is always on call.

But Zakai noted that the nursing staff on site is more often tending to the siblings of cancer patients, rather than the patients themselves. “Sometimes they come to the infirmary with a small cut or bruise because they also want to feel like they are being taken care of,” the director said smiling.

The Abu-Hawah sisters at Camp Sunrise, August 9, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Moreoever, Zakai said that most of the counselors are unaware which is the “sick sibling” and which is the “healthy one.”

Although they are trained to be attentive to the particular needs of ailing children, campers are all treated the same, no matter their medical history.

Sunrise is not a “cancer camp” even though it serves children with cancer, the director explained.

While the topic is never raised by counselors, whose primary focus is to provide campers with as typical an experience as possible, Svirsky said he occasionally hears it brought up by the children themselves.

“They talk about it in the most simple and honest of ways, with one friend asking another ‘Which hospital were you in?…Oh, I’ve been there too!'” the counselor recalled hearing.

But sometimes, the reality of the illness has a more noticeable impact on Camp Sunrise.

Maoz, a camper at Camp Sunrise, August 9, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Zakai explained that while 170 children are registered at the Beit Yehoshua camps, closer to 130 are in attendance each day. That’s partly because some are healthy siblings who have additional commitments, but others are cancer patients themselves that are either undergoing treatment or at home recovering.

But the camp adapts.

Every activity starts and ends on the same day. Asked if children put on a musical — a common Jewish summer camp tradition — Zakai said the staff avoids such programs because they require campers to be consistently present.

It’s the attention to such detail that allows campers to feel that their experience is as typical and enriching as any other.

Take 8-year-old Maoz, for example, a brain cancer survivor who has undergone more than ten head surgeries during his short life.

His nickname at Sunrise is “Balagani” — a play on the Hebrew word for mess, which he boasts of being prone to cause.

While at some camps, this might be cause for concern, at Sunrise it’s a daily victory — letting the kid just be a kid.

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