Being a Scout helped him find his identity. Now he's helping other immigrants do the same
Posted June 7, 2018 9:49 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — There are many ways Troop 1532 is different from most other Boy Scout troops in America.
If you were to stand just outside their campsite one weekend night, you might hear eight or nine languages spoken, or see dishes like the Congolese staple of bugali, or the Nepalese noodle dish thukpa, being prepared.
The boys of Troop 1532 are newcomers to America, almost all political refugees; they moved to America from camps in countries like Tanzania, Malaysia and Nepal.
"We just started off by taking five kids camping at a time. After that, it really becomes all word of mouth," troop leader PJ Parmar tells CNN.
The troop was born out of Parmar's family medical practice in the suburbs outside Denver, where he focuses on treating refugee families. He hopes the troop can help these boys in the same way Boy Scouts helped him.
Parmar's parents moved from India to Canada just before he was born. When he was 1 year old, they moved to Chicago where Parmar says he struggled to find his place growing up in America.
"Boy Scouts to me was a place of acceptance. I actually faced a lot of racism in the public schools growing up where I was, being in an immigrant family," says Parmar. "When I joined the Boy Scouts, I found a very accepting group of friends."
He sees similar struggles for the boys in his troop.
"They're learning to assimilate and they have to be like the other kids, not only to avoid racism, but just to advance in what they're doing," he says. "We need to have these bridge areas where they can feel safe in what they do, but also become part of society."
The scouting, Parmar says, gives these young boys a chance to get out of what is often a crowded home and go camping and swimming.
"When we go to summer camp, you can tell which kids are our kids because their swim tags all show that they're a non-swimmer," Parmar says, noting that not many refugee camps have swimming pools.
Another way the troop is different from others is that they provide all the equipment the kids might need - sleeping bags, tents, hiking gear - all through a non-profit called Mango House, which Parmar started as a center for refugee services.
"We don't expect them to show up with anything more than a shirt on their back," Parmar says.
As the Boy Scouts organization has faced declining enrollment, they've attempted to become more inclusive - in 2017, they opened up membership to transgender boys, and later to girls.
Parmar is working to make sure that economic and racial diversity is also prioritized and also leads trips for girls interested in scouting, called Venture Crew 1532.
"I'm a darker skin, I'm brown. They can see that. They identify with the fact that I am not of the majority culture, and that has a built-in sort of relationship that really can't be replicated easily," he said.
They talk about career opportunities and normal teenage dilemmas, but also more unusual issues like arranged marriages versus a love marriage. Parmar says many of these children end up taking on responsibility far past their years.
Tapas Khanal, a 13-year-old refugee from Nepal, is the senior troop leader and also the only member of his family who speaks English.
"I gotta check my mom's bank account. I gotta check my dad's. I gotta pay bills from my dad's bank account, and for the car and stuff," he told CNN at the Scouts' campsite. "I feel relief here, 'cause I don't have to do all the work, and I get to hang out with my friends, have fun."
On a summer campout, Khanal gravitated towards other boys from refugee camps in Asia, cooking foods they remember from home around the fire at night.
Justin Mbelechi, who was born in Tanzania, and moved to the US from a refugee camp in the Congo, says his friends in the troop have helped him learn how to speak English.
"I'm so proud of myself, I'm going in high school and I speak good English now. I can talk to other people. I can meet other nice people," he said.
During the day, the whole group plays soccer against another troop camping out nearby and explores a pond by canoe.
Parmar says these activities give the Scouts a safe space to explore what it means to adapt to life in America without losing the cultures they come from.
"I actually had a push-back on my culture where I almost didn't associate with that background. I basically considered myself American, actually for decades," Parmar says. "It wasn't until a number of years later, after I grew up, where I started to realize just how much that played a part in who I am. I watch that same struggle going on in these kids, where they're right on that borderline."
He says his work with the troop caused him to re-examine his own cultural identity as Indian-American, and find a way to bridge those two identities.
"Working with the Scouts has helped to bring me back to my own roots, my own culture," Parmar says. "Now being able to relate to them it's helped me, remind me of where I came from."