Refugee youths find safe haven in Boy Scouts America
January 2, 2017
EVERGREEN, Colo. — Boy Scouts Jean Tuyishime and Moise Tuyikunde sit around a crackling campfire under a canopy of stars in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, joking and teasing each other as adolescent brothers tend to do. Only two and a half years ago, they were a world away living at the crowded Gihembe refugee camp, built on a sprawling and dusty expanse of land in northern Rwanda.
The brothers were born in the camp after their parents fled violence in 1996 in what was then known as Zaire. They relocated with their family to the Denver area in 2014, and they gradually assimilated into their new surroundings, learning to speak enough English to get by and signing up for a quintessential American experience — Boy Scouts.
But the troop Jean, 15, and Moise, 12, joined is not like many others in the United States. Troop 1532 is composed almost entirely of refugees who hail from far-flung places like Burma, Rwanda and Nepal.
At campouts, traditional American food like hot dogs and trail burgers is replaced by fish head stew, fire-roasted corn and Chatpate, a popular Nepalese street snack. S'mores are still a staple.
While the troop deals with challenges and problems unique to the refugee population, its leaders say it also helps kids adjust to American culture while providing an additional refuge.
"It's somewhere where they can be totally unafraid to be their authentic self," said Justin Wilson, one of the troop's leaders and the executive director of the nonprofit group Scouts for Equality.
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The political climate seems stacked against refugees and immigrants in general, he said at the recent campout, where multiple languages filled the air and scouts kicked a soccer ball between several well-worn A-frame tents.
"I think it's really important for them to see that people care about them, that people are going out of their way to provide a service for refugees," Wilson said.
Troop 1532, formed in 2014, also provides a blueprint for other Boy Scout groups to attract some of the tens of thousands of refugees who could make the United States home in the coming years.
It's unclear how many of the nation's 2.3 million scouts are refugees, but "few programs are as equipped to help children learn and embrace American culture," Effie Delimarkos, a Boy Scouts of America spokeswoman, said in an email to The Associated Press.
"Scouting also helps build resiliency in children that have lived through more than any child should have to bear," she said, noting the organization emphasizes "duty to country and proactive citizenship."
But Wilson and Dr. P.J. Parmar, a physician who started the troop in conjunction with a refugee clinic he runs in the Denver area, say the kids' varied backgrounds present unique challenges that more homogenous troops don't face.
Difficulties keeping adult leaders and maintaining membership make it hard to focus on earning merit badges and advancing in rank.
"Almost none of these guys know what Eagle Scout is. Their parents certainly don't," Wilson said.
Compounding that, many of those parents moved to the U.S. with very little money and work long, odd hours, which makes it hard to plan meetings. Parmar, who recruits kids through his clinic, said many of the scouts have no reliable way to get to the meetings, so he decided to gather only for camping trips.
Then there's instilling discipline and respect in the scouts, some of whom are still adjusting to a new culture.
On the late summer camping trip, several scouts were caught smoking cigarettes and marijuana, and at summer camp near Colorado Springs, some were accused of theft.
"I think a lot of it, especially at summer camp, is they're under a microscope," Wilson said. "They're not a white, suburban troop so if they do anything, it's going to get noticed, where if another kid does it, it might slip under the radar."
Parmar says he tries to connect with the boys by speaking on their level.
"I have an advantage because I'm from a minority background," he said. He often tells the boys, "The bar is a little bit higher for you guys because you don't get the benefit of the doubt in this society as the white guy."
Jean's father, Jean Batacoka, a 37-year-old housekeeper with five children, says the efforts of Wilson and Parmar have had a meaningful effect on his kids.
"What they do down there is not just leadership, because they learn discipline, how to behave, how to respect people who are older than them," he said through a Kinyarwanda translator. "I think it's a really good thing for them, and I can see something is happening."
For his son Jean, that quality seems to have taken root — and could serve a generation to come.
"I want to grow up and be a leader like P.J. and Justin so I can help other kids," he said.