Cambodian refugee who fled ‘killing fields’ leads refugee unit in America

Saborn Va, right, and Michael Nebeker from the Great Salt Lake Council.

Saborn Va was sitting in his Salt Lake City church a year ago when a group of church leaders asked for volunteers to help lead a Scout unit made up entirely of refugees.

Many of these boys had lost a parent to violence in their native country. Most of them had lost their way in the world. All of them needed the structure, direction and discipline that Scouting provides.

Va had only a brief experience in Scouting as a teen. Nonetheless, he knew right away that he was being called by a higher power.

Va was born in Cambodia near the “killing fields,” a group of sites where more than a million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge, the brutal communist regime that was in power there in the late 1970s. In 1980, the village where he lived with his mother was invaded by hostile fighters. Va’s mom, pregnant at the time, grabbed him and ran.

When the shooting became too intense, Va’s mother pushed him to the ground and lay on top of him until the fighting stopped.

The family survived, thankfully, but Va himself became a refugee, living in Florida and then California before settling in Salt Lake City.

Va, now 37, told his story to hundreds of attendees at the BSA’s annual meeting Thursday morning in Orlando.

“The sunset of our lives became a sunrise,” he said of his family’s move to the United States. “This country has given me everything.”

The Burmese Scouting patch, banned in the 1940s, has been resurrected.

Spreading Scouting

Now, decades after his family fled their native country, he leads a group of 30 refugees as a Varsity team coach in the Great Salt Lake Council. The Scouts come from all over, though most are Karenni or Karen people from Myanmar and Thailand.

Very few of the boys knew each other before they joined Scouting. Now, they’ve all become close friends. It’s not a huge exaggeration to say that the structure, direction, discipline — and even love — provided by Scouting has saved their lives.

“We go camping once a month,” Saborn says. “As long as we’re outdoors, and as long as they’re together, they absolutely love it. Whether we go fishing or if they’re just playing in the woods or even if they’re just sitting in a tent. They love it.”

The Great Salt Lake Council’s Utah Refugee Scout Program is chaired by Michael Nebeker, an Eagle Scout who in his day job raises funds for Operation Smile, a global network of doctors who donate thousands of hours of service to provide surgical care for children with a cleft lip or cleft palate.

Nebeker joined Va at the annual meeting and gave a tearful, emotional testimony about the program.

“These refugees need Scouting more than ever before,” he said. “They need Scouting, and we need them.”

About Aaron Derr 371 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.