On my honour: Scouts, Islam and community in Victoria
By Ruby Syme and Samantha Taylor
In the yard of King Khalid Primary School, playground equipment shines bright in the afternoon sun, edged by the school gym which stands a tall, grey rectangle amid the dwindling children after the school bell.
‘Cub Scouts here’ reads a sign on its door, written in primary colours with an arrow pointing through the plastic curtain to inside. A flurry of yellow-blue shirts and white sneakers fills the once empty space and from beyond the door, rises the bubble of children laughing and talking.
“Ryka? Ryka! Why isn’t your scarf on?”
Group Leader and Akeela Carlo Belfiore is taking the role, and wrangling the high intensity energy of 14 eager cub scouts. Today, he’s planned an afternoon of activities: soccer and first aid training complete with slings, survival and snake bites.
They’re learning their DR ABCD’s as part of this term’s ‘Blood and Guts’ theme that aims to equip the cub scouts with the traditional camping and survival skills of generations of scouts before them.
The King Khalid troop is one of 811 scout troops in Australia, with over 70,000 members nationwide. But in Victoria it’s the first of its kind: the first all Islamic cub scouts group.
The Scouting movement began in 1908, spreading from the lone Brownsea Island camp in Britain to Australia, New Zealand, India and Chile by 1909. It embodies the values of loyalty, respect, courage and community with members promising to do their duty to their Queen, Country and God.
In 2016, an estimated 40 million people have taken the scouts promise and choose to live their live by the scout law. This number continues to grow as does scoutings relevance in the 21st century.
While scouts in Australia still learn traditional wilderness skills and survival techniques, like knot tying and camping, they also participate in more contemporary activities. The core values of scouting remain the same more than 100 years after they were written; to serve your community, to help others and be respectful. Group Leader Iman Habboucheh says that these values are closely aligned with the values of the school and the values of Islam.
“The scouting values are the same values, they’re for everybody. They’re the values that we treasure [at school and in Islam] and so we hope to promote them through the scouting movement…to help in the community, to promise duty to queen and country and Australia,” Iman says.
After the school’s principal saw the positive influence of scouting in the larger community, she was inspired to form a similar movement within the school, enabling students with a stepping stone into wider scouting troops and an opportunity to integrate and form friendships.
“It’s about community service, responsibility, independence, all those wonderful things. It’s an opportunity for the children to integrate, to go to camps and meet other children and learn about each other.”
It’s primarily for the kids, as Iman says, but she acknowledges that the adults involved get just as much out of the scouting experience as the children.
“The staff are really excited. You can see it when they’re planning the activities, I think they have more fun than the kids sometimes! The joy they get through the scouts and cubs, you can tell it’s worth it, they have a really good time.”
Carlos, known affectionately as ‘Akeela’, the leader of the wolf cub pack, says that it’s exciting to be a part of something new and unique in the King Khalid cub scout troop.
“It’s not an everyday thing, this is a once off thing,. When we look back in 5 or 10 years, this will be the start of it all.”
“It’s big enough being a brand new scouts group but being an all Islamic group…especially with all the negative portrayal of Muslims in media [at the moment],” Carlos says.
“The kids are aware, they’re very aware of it. They’ll come to school and say ‘oh, this was written in the Herald Sun about us, about Muslims. They can identify which newspapers are targeting them.”
Facebook comments on an SBS News story about the Islamic cub scout troop prove this to be true. Amongst smiling emojis and positive comments praising the group’s initiative, there also lies hurtful barbs and extreme language. Words like ‘segregation’, ‘jihad’ and ‘terrorists’ are thrown around, littering the otherwise glowing response with negativity.
“It’s nice to have positive media coverage. Unfortunately no matter what you do in life there will always be the negative, but we hope to promote the positive. This is for the kids. Forget the adults, this is an opportunity for the children.”
Carlos and Iman hope that the King Khalid group can inspire others to become involved with scouting and continue to promote the diversity of Australia’s scouting movement– creating a safe space for children to learn and grow, no matter what their race or religion.
Omar’s Story: scouting, Syria and Australia
Striding into a bustling coffee shop in Melbourne CBD, brimming with confidence and calming energy, Omar Al Kassab greets us with a firm handshake.
He’s 22, studying a Bachelor of Business at RMIT and spends his Tuesday nights at the Watsonia Scout Hall as part of the Cleve Cole Rovers crew. He grew up in Syria and was 17 years old when the civil war broke out, turning his world upside down and shaking the foundations of his country and his home.
But the scout hall, next to his house in Homs, remained a safe space and community hub, for Omar, his brother Saad and all their friends.
“We used to go 4 times a week to the scout hall. And the other 3 days I used to just go there anyway and play with the dog, play badminton and study a bit. So every day I was at the scouts. It was a good place because I used to go and get help from the leaders, they used to teach me and help me study.”
Omar was active in political demonstrations and protests, yet when the war turned from dangerous to deadly, he came back to the scout hall to focus his attention on helping those most in need.
“We made food baskets, which we distributed to the internal refugees who were living in schools because people had fled because of the bombing and shelling destruction and massacres,” he says.
“Scouts is based on service to the community, so we had that obligation to help. We shifted all our activism onto helping the community.”
But their willingness to lend a hand made the scout hall a target, and — when the community needed the scout hall the most– it was burned to the ground.
“The hall was attacked. They took the cubs leader and they tortured him to death then they took his brother and he was killed as well, and then they took the food and they burned the scouts hall down.,” remembers Omar.
“So we were scattered and we never met again.”
Omar himself was jailed and tortured before fleeing to Egypt where he waited to receive a refugee visa to Australia. It was there that he received a call from his venturer leader and best friend.
“He called me and he said, “I can’t say goodbye to you but please do your best outside and live by the scout law. Come back to Syria…to see me in the scout hall and tell me about your achievements.”
Three months before Omar left for Australia, his venturer leader was killed by a car bomb.
The first thing Omar did after arriving in Australia was to find a scout hall and rejoin the movement. The first hall he visited was closed, but Omar was determined.
“I [said] to my brother ‘we are never going to go back home if we don’t get to scouts’ so we took the bus and went to Greensborough… and we went to one that was open and just walked in, sat at the back and spoke to them.”
It was the start of a lasting relationship, a comforting connection to home and means for Omar to become a part of the Australian community.
“When a person comes to Australia they just need to have the first step, a way they can get into the community. After school, it’s so hard to make friends…but Scouts means that I have so many friends” says Omar.
“Now we are here and we are in the scouts, and we are contributing here, it is a way to start a new life in Australia.”
The values of Scouts have travelled with Omar from Syria to Australia, and they are qualities he holds close to his heart. Omar chooses to live every day by the principles of the Scout Law and believes that the community spirit it embodies is an important and moral way of life.
“I think that scouting is a really great organisation, a noble organisation… if there are 47 million scouts in the world, and if we had another 47 million…we wouldn’t have the Syrian conflict.”