Boy Scouts Jean Tuyishime and Moise Tuyikunde sit around a campfire under a canopy of stars in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, joking and teasing each other as teenage brothers often do. Only 2½ years ago, they were a world away, living at a crowded camp in the central African nation of Rwanda (pronounced ru-WAHN-duh).
The brothers were born in the Gihembe refugee camp after their parents fled violence in 1996 in what was then known as Zaire (zah-EER). They relocated with their family to the Denver area in 2014, and they gradually became a part of their new surroundings, learning to speak enough English to get by and signing up for a typical 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 faraway places such as Burma, Rwanda and Nepal.
At campouts, such traditional American food as hot dogs and trail burgers is replaced by fish head stew, fire-roasted corn and chatpate, a popular street snack in the Asian country of Nepal. Dessert, however, still includes s’mores.
While the troop deals with challenges unique to the refugee population, its leaders say it also helps kids adjust to American culture while providing a safe space.
“It’s somewhere where they can be totally unafraid to be their authentic self,” said Justin Wilson, one of the troop’s leaders.
“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 at the recent campout.
Troop 1532, formed in 2014, could be a model for other Boy Scout groups looking to welcome young refugees.
Wilson and P.J. Parmar, a doctor who started the troop, say the kids’ backgrounds present challenges that other troops don’t face. Members come and go, which makes 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 of the top scout rank.
Many of the parents have little money and work long, odd hours, which makes it hard to plan meetings. Parmar said the scouts often can’t get to meetings, so he decided to gather only for camping trips.
Then there’s teaching 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, and at summer camp near Colorado Springs, some were accused of stealing.
“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 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 helped 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 translator. “I think it’s a really good thing for them, and I can see something is happening.”
For his son Jean, those qualities seem 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.