Hazami Sayed refers to her family as "accidental immigrants." She and her husband had intended to return to the Middle East after attending college in the United States, but became comfortable in their jobs and lifestyle and decided to stay. But Arab culture and heritage have always been an integral part of her family life; Sayed, who was raised in Kuwait by her Lebanese and Egyptian parents, calls herself a "Pan Arab." She and her family regularly travel to the Middle East to visit family and friends and to expose her two sons to Arab culture.
After moving to Philadelphia from New York City in 1998 and working for a while as an architect, Sayed decided she wanted to spend more time with her boys. So she took a year off from work and traveled all over the Middle East, with her kids and her camera. Upon returning to Philadelphia, she realized what she wanted to do more than anything was to enrich her children's lives by immersing them in Arab arts and culture – here in America.
"I quickly realized, you know, we had a core group of people here [in Philadelphia] that we could bring together and start a program," she recalls, thinking of the families, artists and teachers she had met. "We thought a summer program, something informal... we wanted an opportunity for those of non-Arab heritage to experience something about the culture and learn another language in a setting where kids of different backgrounds could come together."
Out of that desire grew Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, an arts organization that is dedicated to educating young people about the Arabic language and culture. "Here at Al-Bustan, we really view the arts as a powerfully effective medium through which we can provide children and youth the opportunities to engage in their self expression," Sayed explains. She wants program participants to develop a sense of their identity and critical thinking skills. "It is something that is an important part of defining ourselves as an arts education organization."
Al-Bustan hosted its first summer camp in 2002. It started as a two-week program for 6- to 12-year olds, led by Sayed and a team of artists, educators and camp counselors. Today, camp is three weeks long and there is a separate program for teens. The campers come from diverse backgrounds – about two-thirds of them have an Arab heritage, and one-third are non-Arab: African-American, Southeast Asian, white, what Sayed refers to as a healthy mix.
Camp activities are based on a different theme each summer. In past years, campers have learned about famous Arab singers and explorers, and the flourishing of Arab culture in Spain.
"Kids are learning about that theme in a variety of activities that they do, that relate to music, dance, art, story-telling, drama and sort of science-based, nature-based investigations, along with the Arabic language," Sayed says. "There is some formal instruction in a fun sort of interactive way that the kids get to have on a daily basis, but in addition there is a particular theme that informs their three-week experience."
This summer, campers will focus on Palestinian arts and culture, with the Palestinian-American poet and writer Naomi Shihab Nye as the focus.
After the very first session in 2002, Sayed saw that the kids were really drawn to learning percussion, which is an integral component of Arab culture. So she decided drumming was going to be a central theme for all of Al-Bustan's programs. "We realized that music was a very powerful and intriguing experience for the kids and particularly for percussion and learning Arabic rhythms on the Arabic hand drum, tableh. And so we sought funding after that first year for establishing what we called a master apprenticeship in Arabic percussion."
In addition to summer camp and weekend community-based programs, Al-Bustan is now teaching an Arab arts and culture after-school workshop in three of Philadelphia's public elementary and middle schools. This new program is funded by the Philadelphia School District and the U.S. government's National Endowment for the Arts.
"We are working with educators in various educational settings [so] that they have a sense and appreciation for the richness and history of Arab history and culture," Sayed explains. "Arab history goes back a long way and there is incredible richness in it."
She points out that Arab history and culture is often not included in traditional U.S. textbooks, and so is not a regular part of the curriculum. "And our opportunity when we work with children either in camp or a weekend program or even in an in-school setting is to provide some of this sort of nuanced understanding of Arab history and culture and [demonstrate that] culture is a dynamic thing. Kids are living and experiencing it and they're contributing to their own culture."
Her approach so far has been to continue Al-Bustan's thematic focus. For the after-school workshop, it's the life and works of Lebanese-American poet and artist Kahlil Gibran. "The kids are kind of using his story as an immigrant and as an artist to look at their own life, current lives and experiences. He's kind of a reference and framework for them as they explore and express themselves through various artistic mediums," she says.
Hazami Sayed says future plans are to grow Al-Bustan at all levels by reaching more kids in schools, holding more weekend community based programs and expanding the summer camp. She has been contacted by a variety of groups across the country, and hopes to see similar Arab heritage programs in other U.S. cities.