Saborn Va will be the first to tell you that he's just serving like any of the other leaders in Boy Scouts of America Troop 1262, a troop made up of refugees from Burma.
This may be true, but Va shares a commonality with the young men in his troop: He also was once a refugee.
Va was born in the midst of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia that is believed to have killed up to 2 million Cambodians, nearly a quarter of the country’s then population, during the late 1970s.
“They would dig these mass graves and then they would just kill people,” Va said. “If you’re educated, if you wear glasses, if you’re smart or you speak a foreign language, they would kill you.”
Despite several close calls, Va and his parents made it out of Cambodia and into Thailand. They would move from a refugee camp in Thailand to a refugee camp in the Philippines before arriving in the United States in 1985, when young Saborn was almost 6 years old. In their new home in Stockton, California, his family lived with his grandparents and their children. He estimates that 15-16 people lived in a two-bedroom apartment. It was during this time that his mother joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but she soon stopped practicing the faith.
It was while living in Lowell, Massachusetts, where Va would later serve a full-time mission for the LDS Church, that he and the rest of his family, except his dad, were baptized into the LDS faith. Va has since graduated from college and has almost completed his master’s degree. He is currently the director of social media for FamilyShare.com, a division of Deseret Digital Media, which also manages DeseretNews.com.
Va, who also serves in a branch of the LDS Church where many refugees attend, has noticed an interesting reaction by refugee parents who hear his story.
“I just remember this parent looking at his kid and saying, ‘I told you, you can do this,’” Va said. “All the kids are just like, ‘OK, if Sam (Va's nickname) can do this as a refugee, there’s hope for me as well.’ So even though they can barely speak English right now, I think they feel a sense of hope because they look at me and say, ‘If he can do it, why can’t I?’”
He remembers being just like them.
“I remember when I first went to the refugee branch, I saw kids and their best Sunday-dress is a white shirt sometimes if they have one, basketball shorts and flip-flops,” Va said. “That’s their best. And it just made me think, ‘Man, I was in that exact same situation,’ and not only me but the people I went to church with who were also refugees.”
It is memories of that time in his life that motivate him to give back. It is recalling an aid worker in Thailand who took the time to teach him how to play the guitar. It is remembering a Young Men president in Lowell, Massachusetts, who drove a “big ole minivan” and lived 30 minutes away but who would always drop his family off at church and then pick up all the kids, including Va, who needed rides to church. It is turning on oldies music and being reminded of car rides with one Scoutmaster in Massachusetts who may not have helped him receive a lot of merit badges but who taught him basic skills and, more importantly, taught him the value of giving one’s time.
“Everything I do now is because I look back and think about all of the leaders that kept me involved in the church,” Va said. “It’s a tremendous sacrifice for all of these guys. My parents never really went to church, so for me to get to church somebody had to come pick me up.
“A leader had to come knock on my door and a lot of times I would tell them, ‘Hey I’m playing volleyball’ or whatever, but they never gave up. They still came back, they still knocked on my door and asked me to go to seminary (classes) or asked me to go to (youth activities) or asked me to go to church. So I think that’s the reason I do the same thing now. I look back on how my leaders tried to keep me active and I try to do the same thing. They had a huge influence on how I serve in my callings now.”
This is the motivation for his becoming involved in the refugee Scout troops in Salt Lake City and why on a Wednesday night in late September, Va was found at a court of honor ceremony reciting the Scout Oath alongside the young men. It is also why his Scouts say the same things about him that he says about his youth leaders.
“One thing I like about the leaders is the time that they sacrifice for us,” said Kbar Shar, one of the Boy Scouts. “Because they have their work but they sacrifice the time to help us with Scouting, so I’m very thankful for that and for the rides.”
Charles W. Dahlquist II, the national commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America and former Young Men general president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was also at the court of honor and shared his thoughts on Va’s service as well as the service of all Scout leaders.
“This is a great example of what really happens and that is we want these wonderful leaders who have come in themselves from all over the world and now are giving to these other generations,” Dahlquist said. “With him, you have teachers, you have government workers, you have lawyers, businessmen and when these young have an opportunity to rub shoulders with them, they realize they can become anything they want to be. This is a country of potential and possibilities and dreams.”
Va does not believe that his coming to America happened by coincidence.
He recalls an experience he had while being sworn in as an American citizen in Fresno, California. As he raised his arm and began to say the words the judge was asking him to repeat, he began to have flashbacks to key moments in his life: escaping Cambodia; living in Thailand and the Philippines; coming to America; going on a mission; and going to college.
“All of the sudden like a panoramic view came into my mind,” Va said. “I could see it all in my mind as I was being sworn in and all of the sudden I was all teary-eyed because it was an incredible thing I saw in my mind.”
And then a passage from his faith's central book of scripture, the Book of Mormon, came to his mind. It speaks of people being “led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord” and that “none shall come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.” The scripture later promises those people that “inasmuch as those shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land” (2 Nephi 1:5-9).
“I saw those things happen and then those words came to my mind,” Va said. “And I think it’s been true for me. I think a lot of blessings, a lot of things that I’ve been able to achieve are really because I feel like one, I’m in a land of promise and, two, I’ve tried my best to keep the commandments of God. To me, it feels like I have been led here by the hand of God.”