A group of teenage girls gather tight in a cluster, smiling, giggling and whispering into each other’s ears. They pose for selfies, pucker their lips outwards and quickly check their photographs. They repeat it all, like many teenagers, in a loop.
Nearby, stacks of sleeping bags and tents are nestled into a pile.
“Alright girls, let’s gather up and get in line!” Jamie Stanley, 33, says. The girls hush in respect and walk up to Stanley. Their gaze turns towards her as she instructs them to lift their hands up in reflection of hers. It’s the Boy Scouts of America sign - three fingers up, with the little finger connected to the thumb. One-by-one the girls study their hands, to ensure it’s correct.
‘Ok, that’s good,” Stanley affirms.
Afterwards, the girls lift their bags and pack them into vehicles to leave. Not long into the drive, the girls request their first musical choice: Justin Bieber. Similar to many teenage girls, he is one of their favorite.
Unlike most, however, they’re unique in one key way - they’re one of the first refugee female scouting troops in the United States. In this case, they’re all from Nepal.
“I can’t imagine there are any others,” said P.J. Parmar. The 42-year-old is the chartering founder of this particular Venturing Crew, which is part of a program within the Boy Scouts of America. He also started the Boy Scout Troop 1532, comprised of boys from refugee families. Both are located in located in Aurora, Colorado.
“I hear of other diverse scouting troops, and I’m pretty sure there are none (female refugee troops).” Parmar is a primary care doctor in Aurora (just outside of Denver) and owner of Mango House, a shared space for refugee services. As a child, Parmar was in the Boy Scouts of America - earning the highest rank in scouting: the Eagle Scout. Parmar started Troop 1532 in 2014 and wants girls from the refugee community involved.
“There’s absolutely no reason boys should get to do something that girls can’t,” Parmar said. “It’s that simple.”
The Boys Scouts of America (BSA) agree, and recently announced that girls can enroll into its Cub Scout program starting in 2018. They will ultimately be able to also earn the prestigious Eagle Scout award.
Parmar applauds the inclusion. “It’s everything we do here [at Mango House]. It’s about equity and equality, usually ethnic or economic. Gender equality is a big piece of what we do.”
His efforts are appreciated by girls like Nirshika Neopany, 14, who is a member of the crew. Like the others girls, she is a refugee from Nepal. Her family moved to the Denver area in 2012.
“Life was really hard (in the refugee camp), and my parents were really poor.”
Neopany is energetic and smiles often, but grows more serious when reflecting about her past.
“I feel bad for the people still in camps, it’s hard.” When asked what she liked most about coming to the United States, she responds with a smile, “Freedom. We have more freedom here.”
The Venturing Crew (the official Boy Scout title), takes the girls to places locally around Denver and as far away as the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. For many, it’s the first time camping.
As the girls set up camp recently near the sand dunes, their headlamps stream through a dark landscape. A nearby propane light hisses and provides a globe of soft light. Stanley and other leaders prepare to help set up their tents.
“Now what do I do?” one of the girls, Shrostina Magar, 14, asks. “You start at the corner,” Jamie replies. “Which is the corner?” Magar asks. As she tugs on the tent fabric in search of it, Jamie tells her she’s got the right idea. They unfurl their tents, and pound the tiny metallic tent stakes into the ground with stacks of nearby wood.
In 20 minutes, everyone is tucked into their tents. Later, as a silence sweeps over the campsite, stars dot the sky and the air cools.
During the campouts, leaders like Parmar teach them basic outdoor skills, while also fostering leadership skills. But, one of the problems their crew faces, according to Parmar, is finding volunteers. “The main challenge we have is finding enough adult leaders. The vast majority of leaders in scouting are usually the dad, or the mom, of the kid. We don’t have that. Our situation is unique.”
When asked why, Parmar replied, “Because they’re working. It’s really that simple. They work jobs that are odd hours, and often on the weekend.” That’s when Stanley stepped in.
“She somehow got word of Project Worthmore (another organization that works with refugees), and they had a volunteer organization meeting,” said Palmer. “I mentioned we’re going to be starting a female group and she jumped right in.”
Parmar continues to praise her effort, “She does an excellent job. It takes a special type of person, especially to run it. She’s organized, she’s firm, she’s fun. She’s like a dream; we need more of people like her.”
During one of the campouts, Stanley steers the black passenger van towards the turnoff for the dunes and as a song comes on the radio. The girls erupt in unison, and begin to sing one of their favorites: “Despacito.” The song, which is primarily in Spanish, is one of YouTube’s leading videos, at around 4 billion views. As the song music fills the van, the girls laugh, smile and lean into each other as they sing along.
Stanley looks into the rearview mirror and smiles at them. It’s clear she enjoys the energy of the girls. When asked why she takes part, she’s eager to respond.
“In many ways, I was a lot like them,” Stanley says, who is a sales operation project manager. “I was an-at risk youth, but I had women who invested their lives in me. It’s because of what they did, that I was given opportunity. So, it’s kind of a pay it forward for me, especially for these girls.”
She adds that a lot of inner city refugee families don’t know what’s available to them.“They can be anything, instead of being stereotyped into one role.” The recent move by the BSA is applauded by a separate non-profit organization called Scouts for Equality.
Their mission? To make the Boy Scouts of America a more inclusive program for all.
Their executive director is Justin Wilson, 33, an Eagle Scout and United States Marine Corps veteran. Wilson is not only an advocate for the refugee Venturing Crew, but also helps the refugee Scout Troop 1532 as its charter organization representative.
“It was a great fit, because my work is to try to increase the diversity of the Boy Scouts - to make it more inclusive more welcoming to everyone,” said Wilson. “I’m excited for those girls. If a girl is interested, the rank of Eagle Scout is something she can achieve. Not only can the Boy Scouts be a great place for refugees, it can be a great place for girls. We’re leading by example.”
It’s an example Stanley supports. While driving the girls on a recent campout she says, “It’s opened my eyes. It’s helped put myself in their shoes, from a white majority to a white minority.”
She pauses before composing her next thoughts. “It makes me more empathetic. I don’t understand the anti-immigration and anti-refugee stance. I believe this country is the second chance, the second hope. That’s the true American dream.”
Outside, the nearby Colorado landscape is a rocky terrain, one that locals have worked years with hardscrabble efforts to develop. She continues, “I’m also a big proponent of the saying, ‘When you have enough, you build a bigger table, not a higher fence.”
Stanley looks out the window, then back to the rearview mirror at the girls. “It’s easy to say, I don’t feel safe (regarding immigrants), it’s harder to say these words when you look at those eight behind me. They’re typical teenagers - they have hopes, they have dreams.”
It’s a conversation that Stanley fosters during their time together. At the end of one of the campouts, the girls circle around a fire to stay warm. It’s getting cold, with temperatures slipping into the 30’s. Even though they shiver from the cold, they laugh often, share ghost stories and talk about their hopes for the future.
For girls like Neopany, the move to America is part of that dream. “My parents wanted us to come here so we could get an education.” She’s considering a career in medicine as a doctor.
Another of the girls, Susmita Adhikari, 16, is considering a career in the United States military. “I want to do so many things, and I’m going to go to college.”
“It’s nice being out here with everyone,” echoes Laxmi Adhikari, 14. As the fire crackles, she says with strength and a smile, “It’s cold, but we can handle it.”