A rusting bed frame sits on the site where MYCA has been hoping to build a camp since 1999. Photo by Nicholas Bergus

At Home, a Struggle for Acceptance

Bill Aossey was the first Muslim to serve in the Peace Corps. He was a Boy Scout and so were his three sons. He has fond memories of shared camping trips and scouting expeditions.

So it was only natural that he would volunteer to start a nonprofit organization to bring children from around the world into the Iowa woods.

“You’ve heard of the YMCA. We said, ‘why can’t you have an MYCA — Muslim Youth Camps of America?’ It would be an open camp for all denominations, all nationalities, all religions, all racial backgrounds,” said Aossey, owner of Midamar, a halal food export company that has operated in Cedar Rapids since 1972.

For its first project, MYCA, which had no experience running a camp and just $5,000 in assets when it was founded, proposed a facility called Camp Heritage. It would be located on 114 acres of land controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and would be the first permanent Muslim-affiliated youth camp in the United States.

To the dismay of the MYCA board, the camp’s religious affiliation became a roadblock. And in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it became increasingly difficult to separate justified concerns from irrational fears.

And the fears were palpable.

“Many Muslims hate us and I don’t trust them to have a camp with easy access to our water supply,” one opponent of the project wrote to the Corps.

In this case, “them” was mostly the Aossey family, Bill and Joe Aossey, sons of Lebanese immigrants, and Bill’s own sons, Yayah and Jalel. All are members of the MYCA board of directors. All were born in Cedar Rapids. All have been involved since the beginning, eight years ago.

The camp site, 10 miles north of Iowa City along the Iowa River, sits unused. The gravel road has been resurfaced but it only leads to the remains of a Girl Scout camp that occupied the land until 1990 when its lodge burned down. Decaying outhouses, a hole where the lodge once stood, and rotting picnic tables lie in undergrowth that has yet to be cleared.

The camp’s development has been hampered by the strength of the opposition. Newspapers printed editorials in opposition. Opponents sent letters to the Corps. Two local governments formally fought the camp.  Conservative radio host Mike Gallagher broadcast nationally from downtown Iowa City. He fanned the flames with comments like, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all the terrorists are Muslims.”

Some opponents had the sort of environmental concerns that arise whenever land is slotted for development: noise, traffic, access.

Others had a problem with the group’s religion.

Some of these reacted to leasing the land to any “exclusionary” group, be it Muslim, Christian or the Boy Scouts.  But others — a small but unignorable minority — made the leap of linking the Muslim youth camp to a training ground for terrorists.

“We’re running into that kind of social perception in the United States that unfortunately has an impact on how 5- and 6-year-old kids and programs for them are viewed,” said Joe Rinas, a Lutheran, former Linn County Supervisor and MYCA’s first and currently only employee.

Rinas has worked for the last three months alongside the MYCA board of directors: the four Aosseys; Manzoor Ali, who emigrated from Pakistan; Riad Jammal, from Lebanon; and Bob Ballantyne, a Unitarian Universalist who served with the Peace Corps in Iran. All have been in Iowa for at least 30 years.

The lack of women on the board, Jalel and Joe Aossey said, is due to the camp’s plodding pace of progress — there hasn’t been much to do and so the organization hasn’t expanded beyond original participants. As the camp gets closer to completion, both said they hoped women would be interested in working with the group.

The group’s goal, board members say, is two-fold. First, because of what it believes is the public’s misunderstanding of Islam, organizers want to give non-Muslims the chance to learn from and interact with Muslim children to build understanding. They also wanted to give Muslim youth from around the world the opportunity to experience an Iowa summer camp.

While the details of the camp’s day-to-day programming remain undeveloped, organizers say the camp will have the same look and feel as other summer camps. The camp’s five cabins, five tent platforms, and a 2,400-square-foot lodge, all encircled by woods and hiking trails, will host about 60 campers each week throughout the summer. The site will be available to other non-profits during the off-season. The group is working towards American Camping Association accreditation. The cost of building the camp is estimated at $1 million for the facilities alone.