Girl Scout troop disbands after parent chapter blocks Palestine fundraiser

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At the height of cookie season, a time when Girl Scouts across America fundraise by selling their famous Thin Mints, Caramel deLites and shortbread, one troop in Missouri wasn’t in the mood.

Instead, the eight girls of Troop 149 decided to make and sell bracelets, and donate the proceeds to a cause they felt was more urgent than their own: the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. As the violent siege in Gaza rages on with more than 30,000 killed, many of whom are children, troop leader Nawal Abuhamdeh agreed to the girls’ wishes.

“At every meeting, they would just ask me about making bracelets, so I knew it meant something to them and that they felt so passionate about it,” said Abuhamdeh, whose daughter Mariyah is also in the troop. “They were so excited. They felt, like many of us, helpless just watching from a screen.”

But soon after the St Louis-based troop announced their plans, they received a fierce response from their parent chapter, Girl Scouts of eastern Missouri. The message was clear: Girl Scouts did not participate in political and partisan activities.

“Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri and Girl Scouts of the United States have no other choice than to engage our legal counsel to help remedy this situation and to protect the intellectual property and other rights of the organization,” the organization wrote.

The response was surprising to Abuhamdeh, who recalled other Girl Scout troops organizing to help families in Ukraine after Russia invaded in February 2022. According to the Girl Scouts website, a troop in Westlake, Ohio collected medical supplies and pack first-aid kits to be distributed in Ukraine, and “also exchanged small gifts like friendship bracelets and cookies”.

Their efforts were rewarded with the Girl Scout Bronze Award, one of the organization’s highest recognitions.

Abuhamdeh, who is Palestinian, said the stark contrast in response to her own troop’s similar effort was “hurtful”, and a triggering reminder of feeling excluded as a child because of her identity.

“I said, ‘I’m very disappointed that you would deem this as a humanitarian crisis as a political and partisan activity.’ I wanted them to be empathetic to what we were trying to do, instead of trying to slap our hand,” she said.

Faced with the difficult decision to either stop selling the bracelets or to disband from Girl Scouts entirely, Abuhamdeh left the choice up to the girls.

“They stayed quiet for a while, and their first question to me was ‘Well, what’s our group name gonna be?’” Abuhamdeh said. “It wasn’t a hard decision for them.

“It brought back emotions that I felt as a kid – like trying to be silenced or suppressed and told that my identity is political,” she added. “I didn’t really have anyone advocating for me, so I wanted to be the leader for them that could advocate for them – and tell them that they matter, and noble causes that they support matter.

“That was really one of the main reasons we disbanded. We have some important work to do and we’re not going to jeopardize our values.”

The support they did not find within Girl Scouts, Abuhamdeh said they found within their community in St Louis. On Saturday more than 200 people gathered in the community center of the Dar Al Jalal Mosque to help the girls make thousands of bracelets – using red, green, black and white beads to spell “Palestine” or “Gaza”. Together, they raised more than $20,000 for Palestinian children through the PCRF.

“It feels so heartwarming to know how many people are in solidarity with us who say ‘We’re here with you, we’re here with Gaza and we’re here with Palestine,’” she said.

The incident caught the attention of the Council on American Islamic Relations (Cair), who wrote directly to Girl Scouts of the USA for an explanation.

In response, Bonnie Barczykowski, the Girl Scouts’ chief executive, said it was “disappointed and disheartened by what recently transpired” and “we recognize that greater clarity and additional education is needed regarding our Girl Scout fundraising policies”.

Barczykowski added: “This is a learning moment for our organization as we realize we can always do better. We know we should always lead with empathy and recognize the incredible need for kindness and compassion during this difficult time.

“We are also deeply committed to advancing belonging, inclusion, and anti-racism as an organization and within our membership, and we will continue to ensure that we address all communities, including the Muslim and Arab communities.

“GSUSA will be working alongside our council partners to review this incident and make the necessary adjustments to prevent it from happening in the future. We realize we missed an opportunity to champion our troops while they make a difference.”

Cair said it welcomed the response as a “positive first step”, as did Abuhamdeh – although the now-disbanded Troop 149 has as yet received no direct apology.

“People make mistakes,” Abuhamdeh said. “We make mistakes. That’s how organizations and people get it better. It would be nice to hear from them, but at this point, it’s been so long.”

What’s more important to her is that “the girls found a voice in themselves. So in a way, this has been like a blessing in disguise for them. It’s something they will never forget. And I hope that it inspires them to always use their voice for good.”

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