Scouts gain insights after stepping into lives of refugees
At the end of the winding dirt road to Summit Bechtel Scout Reserve lies a valley floor covered with rows of colourful tents, lakes dotted with paddle boarders and kayakers, skies filled with kids flying down zip lines, and thousands of young Scouts in a kaleidoscope of uniforms as diverse as the participants they adorn.
But there is more to this year’s World Scout Jamboree than action, adventure and badges. Thanks to an immersive 360-degree video experience organized by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, each day hundreds of Scouts have virtually walked out of this remote corner of West Virginia and into the lives of refugees around the world.
"It moved me in my heart... and I felt a connection."
As part of the experience they have seen the story of a young refugee named Omar, who was just five years old when he fled the war in Syria after witnessing the death of his uncle and pulling his injured brother from the rubble of a house destroyed in a rocket blast. After escaping, he and his family moved to neighbouring Lebanon as refugees.
Omar lived there for years without access to a hormone medicine that he needed in order to grow, leaving him looking years younger than he actually was. Eventually the family was resettled to Finland, where Omar could get the treatment he needed, but he experienced loneliness as he struggled to adapt to his new home.
Day after day, Scouts drawn from 153 countries sat on the floor of a domed cinema surrounded by the simple belongings of a refugee family, as they were transported from West Virginia to Lebanon and Finland.
They were fixated by his story, learning not only about the plight of more than 70 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, but also what they can do in their own communities to be more welcoming to refugees when they return home.
After joining Omar on his journey, two Scouts from Croatia reacted to his story.
“It moved me in my heart and it was so nice. Croatia was in war too and I felt a connection,” said Scout Ada Grubisic. “We should be happy with all the things we have right now.”
Her friend Vito Aschero added: “We all don’t have the same chance in life. We don’t choose where we are born, where we are from, and we don’t choose to be in war and in harsh conditions as Omar was. Everybody needs to be in the same condition.”
"A scout is a friend to all, and that includes with refugees."
Over the 10 days of the Jamboree – which is held every four years and concludes on 2 August – groups of Scouts also spoke to Omar from his new home in Finland via video link, as well as to other refugee kids living in Kenya, Lebanon, and Iraq.
The nearly 10,000 kilometre distance between West Virginia and Lebanon and more than 12,000 kilometres to Kenya melted away as kids on both sides prodded each other with questions to better understand their circumstances, stories, and interests. They sang songs to one another, laughed heartily, and fell silent as the realities of war and persecution were shared.
“It was impressive that we can be in contact with people who live a reality that is so foreign from ours,” said Adriana D’Amico from Italy, after watching Omar’s story and speaking with refugees over video chat. “For us in Europe, we see war as a thing that is distant and of the past, and I can’t even imagine that people live war. And to be in close contact with people like Omar is touching.”
"Refugees have real problems... and we have to work harder to accept them."
The opportunity for the youngsters to connect with refugees is hopefully the first step on a journey to transform their schools, Scout groups, sports teams, and communities into more welcoming places for all, according to Secretary-General of the World Organization of the Scout Movement Ahmad Alhendawi.
“The beauty of the Jamboree is that it's really about connecting people and encouraging action,” he said. “They're learning first-hand to make friends with people from another culture, and Omar's story encourages them to take their action to the next level. We're really happy with our partnership with UNHCR – a Scout is a friend to all, and that includes with refugees."
Toon Janssens of Belgium is ready to put what he has learned into practice. “I will be more tolerant. If I met someone I would be more open to them because I have seen them and taken time to listen to their stories. When I am home I am busy, I have no time, but we have to listen to people’s stories. Refugees have real problems in their own country, and we have to work harder to accept them.”