Refugees Given a Warm Welcome from California Girl Scout Troops
It’s nearly 4am, and chanting has filled the room. “Chug! Chug! Chug!” Dana is laughing and looking on as her girlfriends challenge the birthday girl, Mera, to tackle a towering milkshake in the wee hours of the morning.
These nine Girl Scouts have gathered at a Southern California Denny’s for suhoor—the final meal Muslims eat before dawn during the holy month of Ramadan—and for the tail end of their sister Girl Scout’s 11th birthday. The waiter had brought out Mera’s birthday cake-batter shake just minutes before fasting would begin, leaving her with two choices: get a major brain freeze or leave her frosty funfetti treat behind. Pretty sure you can guess which path she chose.
And with such a big day ahead, each of these girls needed all the sustenance they could get. In a little over 12 hours—and after a bit more sleep—these girls would join the rest of their Girl Scout troop members to host a Ramadan celebration and welcome party for more than 100 refugees from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The evening would include a full dinner, kid-friendly crafts, sessions with an Arabic-speaking life coach, a “boutique” where families could choose gently used clothes and household goods to take home at no cost, and representatives from resources such as local clinics that provide health services to these populations.
It’s a big undertaking for anyone, let alone a group of two-dozen girls aged 5 to 14, but as 11-year-old Dana explained, it just seemed like the right thing to do. “A lot of our parents and grandparents were born in the countries where the refugees come from,” she said. “My dad grew up in Syria, but my sister and I have never been able to go there because there’s war. But it’s sadder that the people who were living there now had to leave because it was too dangerous. These are good people, and a lot of them left without anything. They’re safer here, but life is really hard for them. It doesn’t seem right that they shouldn’t get to have a nice Ramadan celebration like we do, so we wanted to do this for them.”
This iftar, as the nightly breaking of the fast during Ramadan is called, wouldn’t be the first time these Girl Scouts have focused on this community. The three troops that originated at a private Islamic school in Anaheim, California—where the book, It’s Ramadan, Curious George is prominently displayed in the principal’s office—have always focused on giving back.
“The refugee population has skyrocketed in the past few years here in Orange County,” said Heba Morsi, one of the troop leaders involved in the event. “The girls have been working with relief organizations to help with monthly food distribution in our area, and they’ve seen how as many as 300 people will line up at five in the morning just to pick up basic items." Aisha Cabrer, co-leader of Dana's troop, which also includes Aisha's daughters Haniya and Yasmeen, added, "Our girls are young, but they can understand that these moms, dads, kids have gone through real hardship. They can see how their dignity has been shaken, and they wanted to do something to welcome these families into the fold and actually get to know them. And when these girls decide to do something, nothing’s going to stop them.”
That can-do attitude permeates the house Dana shares with her little sister, Maya, a Brownie Girl Scout, her mom Ivonne, and her dad, Mazen. There’s a plaque in Dana’s bedroom that reads, “If at first you don’t succeed, fix your ponytail and try again,” but spending even a few minutes with this family makes it clear that optimism and resiliency are simply a part of their DNA.
“I was raised Catholic, and didn’t convert when I got married, but we agreed to raise our children in the Muslim faith and I’m very happy for that,” said Ivonne, who was raised in Colombia and limits celebrations of Christmas with her girls to the more secular elements, like Santa Claus. “So much about Islam is about taking care of the community and looking out for others. It’s been inspiring to me and I’m happy to see Dana and Maya growing up with that as a priority.”
It’s also a priority for Ivonne to ensure her children are raised with compassion and appreciation for people from all backgrounds and belief systems. “Maya and Dana are Muslim, I am Catholic, other people believe other things. But really all these beliefs have so much in common. It’s what’s in your heart and what you do in the world that matters. I’ve made sure my girls know that.”
But when Ivonne starts getting the girls ready for their big event, it becomes clear that while there’s no shortage of heart in this home, there is one thing missing: Maya’s official Brownie Tie—the finishing touch on her uniform. “I just had it in my hands, and of course today is the day I can’t find it!” Ivonne sighs, digging through drawers and echoing the plight of Girl Scout parents everywhere.
Meanwhile, Dana puts on her Cadette Girl Scout vest and points out a patch on her right shoulder. It’s covered in stars and says she’s proud of her mom’s volunteer efforts with the Girl Scouts. “It’s my favorite patch of all of them. My mom is awesome,” Dana says, beaming, while Ivonne, well out of ear-reach, weaves Maya’s long hair into two perfect braids in the other room. Within an hour, dress shoes are on, the car trunk is packed with homemade table decorations, and the family’s out the door.
“I hope we can make friends with the girls who come to the iftar tonight,” Dana said, “It would be so nice to hear about places in the world I’ve never been to—like Syria, especially—but if the girls we meet don’t want to talk about it because it’s too hard for them, we don’t want to make them. We want to be their friends and make them feel welcome. Friends don’t want to make each other feel bad or think about bad things. We want to make them happy. That’s what tonight is all about.”
Upon arrival at the community center, the girls are greeted by their troopmates and everyone gets to work. Dana helps to greet some of the refugee girls who fled to Orange County with their families, while Maya is helping separate tangled necklaces at the free boutique. Everyone seems calm and confident as guests begin to arrive. “When these girls work together, it’s amazing what they can do,” observed Shabnum Saeeda Husain, principal of the school where these three Girl Scout troops originated, and where many of the girls still attend. “They are never frazzled. Problem solving is second nature to them.”
And the relaxed vibe and genuine smiles truly have made for a welcoming environment. Eshal, who fled to Southern California with her parents and older sister, Rameesha, sits quietly painting a glass lantern at a crafts table. When asked if she wants to be an artist when she grows up, a big smile emerges, and she laughs, “No! I like art, but I’m going to be an astronaut! I’m very good at math.” For all her confidence and carefree attitude, you wouldn’t guess that the soon-to-be third grader had lived just outside of one of the most dangerous areas in Pakistan up until three years ago. Azra, Eshal’s mother, explains why they had to leave. “There were murders, bombings. People were dying. Children would die. Every day I didn’t know if my girls were safe,” she said. “In some ways we had a good life there, my husband was the zonal manager for [a big multi-national company] in our country, and I had my own salon—but when we don’t have safety for our girls, we have nothing. Here, my husband cleans the mosque and is still looking for a better job, but at least we know our children are OK, and the people have been very welcoming.”
All eyes are on the time as tummies rumble after a long day of fasting, but thoughts of food go out the window as soon as the girls begin their official program, welcoming guests in both English and Arabic from the stage. Maya, along with last night’s birthday girl, Mera, are tasked with walking in with the American Flag—the little-girl giggles of earlier in the day are gone, revealing two proud, reverent leaders paying honor to their country. A hush falls over the room as sisters Yasmeen and Haniyah—who earlier had shown off their musical.ly accounts and battled each other in Uno—sing the National Anthem, lifting their voices like nightingales.
After a Girl Scout roll-call, with each girl introducing herself, it’s finally time to break the fast with dates and a little fresh fruit before starting the evening prayer—and ultimately, the grand finale—digging into a full dinner of salad, potatoes, chicken, falafel, fresh pomegranate seeds, and trays and trays of sweets. During the meal, Azra looks over to see her oldest daughter, Rameesha, talking and joking with 13-year-old Sahar, also a refugee, who came to California with her family from Afghanistan. “For my younger daughter, it takes time to make friends, but with the older one, it’s faster,” she laughs. After a pause, she looks up and says, “I think this is good for my girls.”
It’s clear that Rameesha truly is inspired. “Being here, I miss my cousins and everyone back home a lot,” she says, “but I really like what I see here with these girls. I like how they help each other, and how they work together to help other people. I loved when they all got up on stage and each one said her name really proudly into the microphone. I want to say my name like that one day, too.”
Hugs, waves, and sleepy eyes wind down the evening as Dana helps carry boxes of decorations back to her mom’s car. “I think it was fun,” she says when asked how the evening went. “But just wait until next year. It’s going to be even better!” And with girls like her in charge, there’s no doubt that it will be.