It’s a Monday evening in City Heights and Girl Scouts Troop 4307 is gathering. But instead of green and brown uniforms, the girls are wearing a rainbow of color. When it’s time for the Girl Scouts salute, they raise three fingers to foreheads covered in jewel-toned hijabs.
It’s estimated that 30,000 East Africans live in San Diego, many of them in City Heights. And Girl Scouts Troop 4307 is just one example of how the refugee families are tailoring U.S. customs for their mostly American-born children.
At this troop meeting: Henna and learning about East African countries.
“We try to get them prepared not only to preserve their culture, but also to prepare them for the mainstream culture,” said troop leader Bethlehem Degu.
Degu said the specialized troop started because girls in her community wanted to join Girl Scouts but their parents had reservations. They thought maybe their daughters had to be a certain religion or would be off camping all the time, Degu said.
“If their parents are always too scared to have them join this program or that program because it’s not culturally competent — they don’t have someone translating to them and helping them fill out the forms — then these girls will never get that experience those other girls do,” Degu said.
After hearing it through a translator, the program’s message was something the parents could all get behind.
It’s about sisterhood and respect, Degu said. “And Girl Scouts is all about confidence, so all of the things that come with the Girl Scouts but at the same time having pride in their culture and pride in who they are.”
San Diego Girl Scouts CEO Jo Dee Jacob said that 25,000 San Diego girls are served by troops. Most are traditional troops that most Americans know about, “but some of them are specialty troops or common-interest troops,” Jacob said. “For example, in Mira Mesa we have an all-Vietnamese Girl Scout troop.”
There are also Spanish-language troops and special-interest troops for girls who like science or golf. And a trip through the Girl Scouts shop in Balboa Park reveals not just the traditional uniforms and badges for sale, but Spanish-language workbooks and patches embroidered with the faces of United Farm Workers founders Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez.
Even the Girl Scouts Promise, which all scouts must memorize and recite, can be adapted for different religions. While it refers to God, Jacob said girls can substitute the name of their own higher power.
She said such acceptance falls right in line with what the Girl Scouts’ founder envisioned.
“Juliette Low was a very, very progressive woman,” Jacob said. “Back in 1912, women didn’t have the vote, they couldn’t wear pantaloons, they were certainly not expected to be athletes.”
For Troop 4307, there are no such limits on ambition.
“I want to be six things. I want to be a ballerina teacher, a gymnastics teacher, an orthodontist, a dentist, and a talent show teacher, and a singer,” was the response by a Girl Scouts Daisy when asked what she wants to be when she grows up.
In addition to learning about their heritage, the girls do common Girl Scout activities like hearing from female role models like Sheona Som of the nonprofit Women Give San Diego, and Anindita Dasgupta, a postdoctoral student who works with the Center on Gender Equity and Health at UC San Diego.
“Does anybody have an idea of what age they would like to get married?” Dasgupta asked high school-age Girl Scout seniors in the group. Most said they wanted to wait until they finished their educations.
In many cases, role models are the very women who start Girl Scouts troops.
The United Women of East Africa Support team comprises refugee mothers who got their start just trying to make things better for their kids. They’ve also negotiated women-only pool hours at the YMCA so their Muslim daughters could learn how to swim. And they fought for school lunches that meet their children’s religious guidelines. Now the women provide cultural competency training and educate their community about health and business.
Kadra Hassan said she endures criticism from people who are uncomfortable with the religious accommodations because she wants to set an example for her daughters.
“If they see that I’m a strong woman and that certain things don’t phase me, they’ll learn to be strong as well,” Hassan said through a translator.
Hassan’s daughter, Faduma Haji, seems to have noticed.
“My mom is hardcore,” Faduma said. “She has so many things going against her – English is not her first language, this is not her country. When I went over to her country, I felt so out of place and I was thinking, ‘How could she do all these things?’ It’s like just the thought of us keeps her going and I just want to pick that up from her – that strength.”