Ablel Alemu, 19, does team-building games at the California Global Youth Peace Summit in Foresthill. (Eli Wirtschafter/KQED)
In a grove of pine trees on a hot afternoon, seven young men are given a challenge: stand together on a wooden box smaller than a card table, with no part of their bodies touching the ground, for five whole seconds.
The group huddles in to strategize. How will they all get on the box? A lanky 19-year-old named Ablel Alemu has an idea. He jumps on his friend’s shoulders to save space.
Everyone else squeezes onto the box, and for five seconds they hang onto each other without falling. They cheer and slap each other on the back. Ablel throws up his fist in victory.
It feels like summer camp. But this program in Placer County is a little unusual. Close to half of the young people here are immigrants and refugees.
Now in its sixth summer, the California Global Youth Peace Summit brings dozens of high schoolers together for a week of games, community building, and reflection at a retreat center in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Ablel, who was born in Eritrea, says the summit is “a place to have fun, a place to solve your problems, a place to express yourself.”
He adds, “If you have a bad depression, or really have a bad life because you have a memory of a bad thing, it really helps.”
A rough start in the U.S.
When Ablel was nine, his family faced extortion from the Eritrean government. They fled to neighboring Ethiopia and were placed in a refugee camp. He says they barely had clothes to wear or food to eat.
“[The refugee camp is] not for people,” says Ablel.
In 2014, the United States allowed Ablel’s family to immigrate as refugees, and they flew to Oakland.
Ablel says he felt lonely when he first arrived in the U.S.
“I didn’t know no one,” recalls Ablel. At home in Eritrea, strangers on the street would stop and help if he ever looked confused. Here, “the people don’t talk to you.”
With almost no background in English, Ablel started at Oakland International High School, where all the students come from immigrant families. He says he sat quietly in the back of the class.
“All I said is ‘okay,’ or ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” says Ablel.
Ablel didn’t think he’d graduate high school. Then, after junior year, Ablel was invited to spend a week in the woods west of Lake Tahoe, at the California Global Youth Peace Summit.
Ablel didn’t really know what to expect from the summit. He’d been told it was a place to have fun, and to practice English.
It wasn’t until the bus ride up that he found out the bad news: he wouldn’t be able use his cell phone. For the whole week.
“Wow,” says Ablel, recalling his reaction to the news. “I was gonna cry the first time! But then in the middle, it was like, 'I don’t even remember my phone.'”
Face-to-face contact across cultures
Part of the summit consists of typical summer camp activities: ropes courses, team building games, free time at the pool. But the participants also engage in some serious introspection.
On day two of the summit, the camp’s founder, Vanessa Stone, gathers the youth in a circle. And she sends everyone out into the woods to gather objects for a group art installation project. She tells each person to find an object to represent something in their life they want to let go of.
“So if it feels like a heavy burden, find a big heavy thing,” explains Stone. “If it feels like a gnarly anger, then find something that looks like gnarly anger.”
This kind of activity -- reflection, talking together about life traumas -- is at the heart of the summit, which Stone began five years ago.
Stone, whose family is Colombian, never went to college. She says she struggled to find a path for herself when she was young. She became her own brand of teacher. She went around the world offering something like spiritual leadership, something like group therapy.
In her twenties, Stone started the Amala Foundation, an international humanitarian and educational organization.
“I was traveling and doing projects and encountering extraordinary young people from really remote places and going, ‘Gosh, how do I get them all together in a conversation?’" says Stone.
Then she realized, “‘Wait a minute -- there’s a global community in our backyard through the refugee population and the immigrant population.’”
This year, 48 young people came to the summit here in California. About half are immigrants and half were born in the U.S.
“I wanted our American youth to have direct access to people from the countries that they read about in the news. To have face-to-face personal contact,” says Stone.
The immigrants in the group all attend for free. The summit is kept alive largely through private donations and a lot of volunteer labor. Barely any of the staff and counselors on site are paid.
Learning English by communicating without words
During some free time between activities, Ablel chills in a hammock with one of the American counselors. They’re looking up at the sky, “thinking about ourselves, and relaxing.”
In his first year at the summit, Ablel had to figure out how to talk with people who spoke different languages.
“Even though we don’t speak english, we kind of communicate by our hands,” says Ablel.
Learning how to communicate without words made Ablel more confident. His English got better. And in group circles at camp, he would reveal even his most personal struggles.
“You are sharing the idea so you kind of have peace with yourself,” says Ablel.
Last year, when Ablel came back from his first summit, he felt like he had transformed.
“After the summit, I feel more care about my family, and all the other people too,” says Ablel. “I feel more care than I used to.”
Ablel graduated high school in June. In the fall, he’ll start classes at community college. But before that, he’s savoring his last days at the California Global Youth Peace Summit.
“I don’t want to go home,” says Ablel.
For Ablel, who ran from his own country, whose family had to fight their way into the U.S., the summit is a place that feels safe -- that feels like home.