October 02, 2018, BY Beth Kaszuba

Young people dance on a lawn.
Ikmal Azman '19, center, leads an ice-breaking activity with counselors and participants in a Malaysian summer camp he helped design. Photo by Syuen Chia

Ikmal Azman '19 grew up in a nation where ethnic tensions are smoothed over by policies that keep individuals in social "silos." This summer, Azman returned to his native Malaysia with the goal of helping teenage campers reach across those barriers and discover a shared humanity.

His collaborative initiative, called Architects of Diversity, was supported in part by a Davis Projects for Peace grant — and rooted in Azman's experiences as a United World College (UWC) scholar, and at Bucknell, where he is the interfaith representative for the Muslim Students Association.

Working remotely with other UWC graduates located around the world, Azman, who majors in interdisciplinary economics & mathematics, helped to create a camp that brought together 31 teenagers drawn from Malaysia's various racial, ethnic, religious and economic groups. Over the course of one week, the campers, who spoke six different languages, tried Zumba, played Frisbee — and took part in sometimes intense activities designed to encourage friendship and empathy.

"I was really happy with our success in getting the participants to understand complex racial and inter-ethnic problems in just one week," said Azman, who noted that, due to top-down policies that encourage segregation, some Malaysian people never form friendships outside their silos. "Witnessing the participants' opinions changing, and their eyes opening — seeing it with my own eyes — was just amazing."

Azman facilitates a discussion at the camp. Photo by Syuen Chia 

Challenging Campers' Perceptions
Activities, adapted from a UWC curriculum, included an identity swap, in which campers were assigned to different socio-economic groups, to learn what it's like to walk in another's shoes. In a different exercise, teens were randomly assigned pro- and anti-immigration roles in a simulated refugee village. Among the participants were several actual refugees, who were not identified as such before the activity. Because the campers had already formed friendships, arguing against immigration in front of those who had experienced displacement became a challenge, even in a fictional context.

"After each activity, we divided into smaller groups where the participants could share their thoughts, and one kid bravely said that he used to have really bad impressions of refugees," Azman noted. "But after the simulation he said, 'Now I look at them as humans.'"

Although the Projects for Peace grant, which was augmented with support from UWC, only funded the camp for one year, Azman said he and the other Architects of Diversity designers are working to raise money to continue the program.

"I always thought it will take a lot to change things in Malaysia," Azman said. "But after the camp, I think there's more light, and more hope. Our goal is to continue this curriculum and keep this conversation going."