Friends of Refugees

A U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group

Guiding refugees into our culture – not alienating them away

Posted by Christopher Coen on August 1, 2011

It seems that the best way to help immigrants with acculturation – the process of assimilating new ideas into an existing cognitive structure – is to meet them part way between our culture and theirs. has an article about Boy Scout leaders in Chattanooga who show adept skill at guiding Burundian refugee youth into American culture by tailoring Boy Scout values and traditions to the young people’s experiences and understandings. That’s at the heart of any good teaching no doubt, whether one is teaching adults or children, or Americans or the foreign-born. You have to know your students — not treat them like numbers.

Before a recent hiking outing in the Pocket Wilderness, a member of East Ridge Scout Troop 127 asked Scoutmaster Ben Powell if he’d be bringing along a rifle. 

“Why?” Powell replied. 

“In case we see a lion,” the scout answered. 

Considering the scout’s background, the question wasn’t unreasonable. Of Troop 127’s nine members, six are refugees from Burundi, a small, landlocked country in Eastern Africa with a long history of conflict…

…Powell described the development of the troop as one of continual adaptation, as leaders and scouts have grown in their understanding of one another. Troop leaders now rarely ever wear the Boy Scout uniform, due to a negative association with uniforms wrought from years of civil war in their native country. 

To work towards forming stronger relationships, Powell’s approach has been unconventional, but with purpose. In the basement room where the troop meets, a whiteboard shows the tenants of the Scout Law, with the hand-written corresponding words in Kirundi, the indigenous language of Burundi…

…”To be effective working among the Burundians, you have to unpin a lot of your ideas from normality, and that can be disruptive to a lot of people personally,” Powell said. “For example, we discovered that for our Burundians, the forest is not only a place with dangerous animals, but also where military units took people to murder them. So, they are pretty hesitant about places other Scouts would typically enjoy.”

J.R. Caines, pastor of East Ridge Presbyterian, refers to the Burundians as family. He described the church’s mission with the troop as one of not “reaching out, but reaching in.”

“They’re thinking about the future, about having to one day get a job and find their way in America,” Caines said. “So it’s not as much about learning the typical Boy Scout outdoor skills, but also the cultural skills, the way that American culture works.”… Read more here

The only part of the story I’m wary about is the emphasis on Christian values. Those are a significant part of American culture, but not all Christian values — or all of each sect’s values — necessarily represent our common values. Refugee resettlement is a public program serving our whole society. I hope that the Boy Scouts in Chattanooga stick to that part of Christianity that represents the universal human values from which we created our culture, including trustworthiness, loyalty, helpfulness.

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