Amin Aaser remembers as a child growing up in Minnesota that his Muslim faith often made him feel like an outsider, and being required to follow its practices and tenets “sometimes felt like going to the dentist.”
Those memories are part of what spurred Aaser, now a married man with a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, to spend Ramadan producing an online, interactive “Ramadan Camp” for Muslim children ages 5-12 throughout the world.
The Noor Kids Ramadan Camp started two years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, about 90,000 families have signed up, and about 3,000 families join live every night, he said.
The camp is streamed from a warehouse in Brooklyn Park that is designed to resemble a treehouse. Children spend between 30 minutes and an hour hearing stories, playing games, making projects, listening to guest speakers and sharing prayers.
It’s all intended to find fun ways to help the children learn and discuss the tenets of their faith while meeting other Muslim children around the world.
Aaser said Ramadan is the most important time of the year for Muslims, who fast from sunup to sundown while focusing on improving themselves and building their faith. Busy Muslim parents who are fasting can often struggle to bring the spirit of Ramadan into their hearts and homes, he said, and the camp is designed to ease that burden.
Anum Ahmad, the mother of a 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter in Toronto, said the camp has become an almost daily ritual for her family. Although Toronto has a large Muslim population, her son attends a public school with only one other Muslim child, she said.
“It makes a big difference for him to see other kids his age, speaking the same terms we use at home,” Ahmad said. “I can see in his expression how excited he is to see that there are so many other people like him around the world. For the first time I’ve seen a spark related to his religious identity.”
The camp is a continuation of Aaser’s mission since 2012 to help Muslim children embrace their faith and feel accepted, particularly in areas where they are a religious minority.
He said that as a child he was so embarrassed when his friends laughed at his mother’s hijab while he played baseball that he asked her to pick him up 15 minutes after the game ended. And the only other Muslims he saw were at a mosque or on television.
As he grew, he wondered how he could help other Muslim children — including his niece and two children — to be confident and accept their Islamic beliefs.
In 2012, he and his brother, Mohammed, began Noor Kids, which has grown to provide child-centered books and online programs that emphasize building character with age-appropriate stories about traits such as gratitude, resilience and courage.
In 2016, after his mother died and in the midst of a divisive U.S. presidential election, Aaser decided to leave a career in venture capital and, with his wife, focus solely on building the Noor Kids brand.
Today, Noor Kids has a team of about 15 people across the world, with most concentrated in Brooklyn Park.
Ahmad said her family has read the Noor Kids books for years because they contain analogies that explain Islamic teachings in a colorful way that appeals to children.
“Sometimes when parents try to explain difficult concepts, it may become a bit preachy, so I feel like I’m maybe not doing the best job of that” she said. “And sometimes if (her son) hears the teaching from someone that he thinks is really cool, like Amin, it can have a very different impact. It’s important to hear it from someone other than parents.”
Aaser said he doesn’t want the interaction in Ramadan Camp to stop when the holiday ends this week, so Noor Kids has launched Muslim Treehouse, which will provide twice-a-week programs to his young audience.
“I hope that through Noor Kids and our online programs we can build a better future for kids,” he said. “The mind of a child is where change begins, and if you can plant the seeds of character and citizenship, my hope is it will pay off for these individuals in the long term.”
Margaret Stafford, The Associated Press