Brownies and Refugees: A Partnership Begins to take Root

By Suzanne Besser

Although some have not yet reached the age of nine, seventeen compassionate Brownies have taken a step far beyond most adults by reaching out to the more than 450 refugees who annually arrive in Boston seeking a better life.

Second and third graders, the girls are members of Girl Scout Brownie Troop 65321. Primarily from Beacon Hill and Back Bay, they have met together for three years at the Church of the Advent. Each year their troop looks for projects that represent the Girl Scout mission and at the same time keep the girls engaged, eager to learn and willing to make a difference, explained Sofia Altenoff, a troop leader.

This year started with a project called “All About Me” and, not surprisingly, the Brownies learned that many of their families came from abroad. This led to a world map project, which then gave birth to the refugee and immigrant project.

The project came about because one mom, Evie Dykema, had been inspired by the resilience, accomplishments and gratitude of a refugee who spoke at a fundraiser for the Boston Center for Refugee Health & Human Rights at the Boston Medical Center. A multidisciplinary and comprehensive healthcare provider, the Center annually works with more than 450 refugees and survivors of torture and related trauma from around the world.

 “I was struck by the fact that the refugee and the empathetic, skilled and courageous professionals at the Center represented so many of the qualities that our Brownie leaders and parents hope to develop in our girls,” she said. “I thought it could be a good unit for the Brownies that would expose them to less advantaged communities within our city and ideally involve a community service project.

Dykema was mindful that the refugee topic could be considered too adult or political, but said the Brownies’ parents looked at it as a human issue with a strong potential to offer important lessons to their children when presented in an age-appropriate way.

And that’s what they asked the Center’s program coordinator Jenn Sato to do. She came to a troop meeting with five slides she used to facilitate an interactive discussion. She talked about the Center and the world’s refugee crisis. Using maps and pictures, she described who refugees are and the long journeys they follow to leave their countries.

“The girls were extremely intuitive and engaged and had a lot of opinions to share,” said Sato. “What struck me was how deeply empathetic they were.”

Mariella Mattaliano, age 9, learned that many refugees coming to Boston “are different colored skinned people who come from countries like Nigeria and Kenya and Serbia. They leave their homeland, their homes and their families because there are wars and it is too dangerous for them to live in their country.  It is really sad.”

After Sato’s presentation, it was clear that the girls wanted to learn more. Dykema invited Art Resource Collaborative for Kids executive director Sara Demeter to talk about her experiences founding an art camp to help young Syrian refugees in Jordan work through their sadness at having had to leave their homes.

The girls were able to see the faces of thirty children of Syria whose lives were dramatically changed by the war when Vicki Adjami came to talk with them about her Syrian ancestry and the work she did with other women on a community quilt entitled Mending Syria – Exile and Survival.

Sato returned a second time to help plan the banner, talking about images that would be hopeful and inspiring to the refuges.  The girls began to work on the banner that night, painting symbols that reflect peace, love, joy and happiness. Suzie Briggs and Stephanie Guadagno, both moms, helped them plan their designs and worked carefully with each girl.

Last week the Brownies toured the Center and hung the Welcome to Boston banner for refugees to see as soon as they enter the waiting room. “Most of them come from like Asia, Africa and sometimes South America,” said Troop member Fiona Savage, age 9. “We can help them by telling them where to go, and where to go to find things, and to give them stuff.  After a while they are used to their area and they can live somewhere safe and better for them.”

Dykema hopes the girls learned several lessons regarding the refugee experience, the healing power of art, the impact that that children and their youthful spirits can have on making the world a better place, and the rewards associated with spending time to help others.

“When we decided to do a session on the Refugee Center we never dreamed that it would turn into a five-month project,” said Altenhoff. “The banner project was made with love. The girls enjoyed every moment and I truly feel that this partnership will just keep growing.”


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