When Ahiska Troop 700 meets, two flags are on display: the Boy Scout flag and the U.S. flag. Troop leader Far Arrington cut about a foot off each pole, making them shorter so the boys could hang the flags more easily.
The Scouts’ expressions are serious, and their pressed uniforms bear newly sewn-on patches. The troop is made up almost entirely of refugees who range in age from 6 to 16 and who are members of Boise’s growing Ahiska Turkish community.
At the Northwest Pointe apartments, where most of the Scouts live, Ahiska elders enjoy the late summer evening. Women sit in one group, men in another, following Muslim tradition.
The Scouts started school this week but have been in the United States less than a year, and in Idaho only a few months. During Scout meetings, knot-tying and listing the items for a camping trip — notebooks, Scout knives — take place in a mix of languages.
The one non-Turkish member of the troop is 11-year-old Daniel Valle, whose parents came to the United States from Cuernavaca, Mexico, four years ago. He wears a patch that indicates he speaks Spanish and English. Since joining the group, he’s also picking up a little Turkish. Valle is known in the troop as a good animal spotter. In order to earn a Second Class badge, Scouts have to identify 10 creatures in the wild. Valle’s list includes a mourning dove, a jumping spider and a dragon fly.
“I just watch for movement,” he said.
Barysh Shakhmandarov, 13, a boy with big green eyes, is the troop bugler, nicknamed “Louie” in homage to jazz man Louis Armstrong. Shakhmandarov’s father is a pianist, so it made sense for him to handle bugle duties, like performing reveille during campouts.
During a recent meeting, Shakhmandarov’s bugle never left his side. He pointed to an empty spot on his uniform.
“The bugle badge will go here.”
The troop has been meeting since June under the leadership of Far Arrington and his wife, Terri.
Terri Arrington spent time in Turkey as an English teacher and is troop translator. Far Arrington has a long history with scouting in Idaho, northern Virginia and Missouri. When Troop 700 came together, he did some research.
So far, he hasn’t been able to find any other Boy Scout troops with a predominantly refugee membership.
Keziah Sullivan, community outreach specialist with the International Rescue Committee, a local organization that helps refugees, doesn’t know of any either.
The Scouts’ work ethic and sense of community have already impressed Arrington.
“When we go camping, the boys cook and peel potatoes and onions. When they serve the food, they make sure no one gets more than anyone else,” Arrington said. “That’s not always the way it is with boys.”
Terri Arrington tells about the time the troop found a raspberry bush on one of their hikes. “Most kids will pick one berry and eat it,” she said.
The Turkish Scouts carefully picked whole handfuls then carried them back to share with their troop leaders.
The troop also is the only one he’s known with a wealth of good wood-choppers. The boys cut firewood into small pieces and conserve it so well, they have wood left over for next time, Far Arrington said, something that’s rare in Scout circles.
Ahiskas are ethnic Turks who came to the United States after suffering discrimination in Russia. Their lives there, according to Terri Arrington, help explain the boys’ self-sufficiency. Some worked on farms. Some lived in houses without electricity. They learned to cook by watching their mothers and grandmothers.
Kamran Zabitov, 13, is troop patrol leader. He was the first member of the troop who learned to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, the Scout Oath, Law and Motto. Words such as “helpful,” “loyal” and “trustworthy” emerge clearly through his Turkish accent. On a recent campout, Zabitov got up early and cooked eggs for everyone in camp. He likes camping because he likes to sleep near the sound of a river.
The troop’s first campout was in the Arrington’s back yard. The boys readied the tents and the Arringtons taught them about the wilderness. Warning the boys about bears and the necessity of not keeping food in tents was key, said Terri Arrington, especially when she discovered one Scout eating an apple after lights-out.
When the troop camped near Idaho City, the boys were mesmerized by the trees and mountains, Arrington said, but also by the camping gear, how all the pieces worked, and how they made tasks easier.
Zabitov’s grandmother, Zulkhie Safarova, is a liaison between the troop and the Ahiska community. She gives approval for scouting activities and makes sure each is in keeping with Ahiska culture. So far, no conflicts have arisen between troop activities and Turkish tradition.
Safarova recently had heart surgery in Boise. This was impossible in Russia, where Turks have a hard time finding doctors who will treat them. Children like her grandson would not have been allowed to participate in a group like the Boy Scouts, either.
“Now I’m happy to see my children smiling,” Safarova said. “Kamran loves this. He’s never seen anything like it.”
Who are the Ahiska Turks ?
One hundred and ten families of “Ahiska” or “Meskhetian” Turkish origin have settled in Boise during the past year. Originally from a region of Russia near the Turkish border, the Ahiska Turks lost their homes in the 1940s when Joseph Stalin deported them to Central Asia, many to Uzbekistan.
As recently as 1989, when the Soviet Union was breaking apart, many Ahiska Turks died in an Uzbekistan pogrom. Some returned to Krasnodar in Russia but continued to face anti-Turkish violence and discrimination. Refugee agencies began resettling Ahiska Turks in U.S. cities in 2004. Refugees and immigrants are not synonymous. By definition, refugees are those who have left their homes because of a well-founded fear of persecution.