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City home to first U.S. Cambodian Girl Scout troop

Saturday, August 23, 2008

By Melissa Dribben
Inquirer Staff Writer http://www.philly.com/philly/news/local/19383194.html

At the corner of Sixth and Ritner Streets in South Philadelphia is a construction site. You have to walk around a chain-link fence to reach the front yard, which is filled with rubble and a couple of hulking Asian dragon statues, giving you the distinct impression that whatever is going to happen here won't happen for quite a while.
But then, you enter the building at the south end of the lot. This is the Bra Buddha Ransi temple. And inside, you witness a subtle but profound transformation in the city's character, the neighborhood's identity, and the lives of seven girls.
Gathered in a circle on Oriental rugs in the sanctuary is Girl Scout Troop 971, the first, and so far only, troop in the United States organized exclusively for girls of Cambodian heritage.
Part of the troop's mission is to help the girls integrate their dual cultures "so that they're not too Americanized and not too Asianized," says Sophea Siv, whose two daughters, Emily, 15, and Sara, 13, were among the first to join.

Siv grew up pinched in the seam between two cultures. Her family fled to Thailand from Cambodia in 1975 during the brutal Pol Pot regime and eventually settled in South Jersey. Because they were sponsored by local churches, Siv and her six siblings attended Christian services. But at home, they were Buddhist.
At school, Siv spoke English; at home, her native Khmer. Although she seemed like a regular teenager when out with her friends, at home she never dared challenge her mother.
"Girls must be very obedient," she says. "Very obedient. My mother doesn't give you dinner if you wear shoes or speak English."
Siv has ricocheted between both cultures most of her life. She studied mechanical engineering at the College of New Jersey and became a teacher in New Jersey public schools. But at 21, while her friends were all dating, she agreed to an arranged marriage to a Cambodian man she barely knew.
"I had one wish in life. Whoever I marry, I want him to be Cambodian, like my father." Her father was "eliminated" by the Khmer Rouge.
Now 38, Siv says she is still conflicted about her identity. With the help of the Girl Scouts, she hopes her daughters will not face the same struggle.
"It gives them a chance to learn about their culture and get to know other Cambodian kids," she says.
The Cambodian population is now estimated at 20,000 in Philadelphia and its suburbs, says Robert Koch, vice president of the Khmer Buddhist Humanitarian Association.
Koch, Siv's brother-in-law, helped form the Girl Scout troop last fall at a neighborhood peace march.
It was there that he met Ann Meredith.
Meredith, 45, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania, didn't come to recruit, but after talking with Koch, she realized there was a need and an interest.
A month later, they founded Troop 971. By January, they had held their first meeting, and by the end of their first cookie sale had raised $1,600.
"The girls who need us most are middle school girls who are at risk in many ways. Self-esteem. Unhealthy eating. Risky behavior," says Meredith. "I see us as a lifeline." The need, she says, is particularly acute in immigrant populations where teenagers often feel they don't fit in.
The Girl Scouts has long been seen as the s'mores and good-deed-badges preserve of suburban white girls. At its inception in 1912, however, it was intended to serve diverse populations.
In the last few years, Meredith says, the organization has been trying to re-embrace that original intent.
Scouts meet with women prisoners at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. Leaders have organized activities for girls in Philadelphia homeless shelters.
"We've been working hard," she says, "So that Girl Scouts reach everywhere, urban, rural."
And now, a Cambodian Buddhist temple.
Before their meeting starts, the girls of Troop 971 bow to the saffron-robed monk seated against the wall behind a long, low table. Then, armed with markers, they begin passing around a poster board, adding to lists of activities they were planning for the annual citywide Safe Night Philadelphia on June 6.
Under the heading "Community Service," they have: "1. Clean temple. Clean park. 2. Encourage recycling by making posters. 3. Food drive."
Their fund-raising activities include "Writing name in Khmer." For a small fee, Emily Siv explains, the girls will translate your name into letters from the Khmer alphabet.
The monk begins chanting. He dips a white chrysanthemum into a silver urn, then flicks water from the petals at a woman kneeling before him.

"He's giving her a blessing. One of her children behaves badly all the time," explains Koch.
Part of the reason he organized the troop, he says, is to help keep his own twin 13-year-old daughters, Jasmine and Monique, on the right track.
At the moment, they are trying to arrange a summer camping trip.
"The 26th?" Jasmine proposes.
"I'm taking the SAT program," says Emily.
"How about the first week in July?"
Sara checks the calendar on her cell phone. "July 5?" "I guess July 5 is good," says Emily. "But won't everyone be tired after July 4?"
Her mother watches from the front door. "These kids," she says, "have got it made."

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.



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