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Pakistani refugee digs in on service project at one of Houston's oldest African-American cemeteries

HOUSTON, Texas — Asher Joseph considered the standard criteria when selecting his Eagle Scout project: The project should benefit the community, involve other Scouts and enable him to demonstrate leadership.

Members of his troop, sponsored by the Hermann Park Ward in the Houston Texas Stake, helped make it happen.

The deeper significance of the project Asher chose became clear after the activity took place — a cleanup at Olivewood, one of Houston’s oldest African-American cemeteries. Asher’s Eagle project encapsulates the spirit of Houston — a welcoming city that takes pride in its diversity.

Burials took place at Olivewood for nearly 100 years, beginning in 1875. In recent years, the descendants of Olivewood have struggled to restore the overgrown oasis, where tombstones had toppled and some graves are in danger of falling into the White Oak Bayou.

Members of the Hermann Park Ward help with service project at the historic Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, Texas.
Members of the Hermann Park Ward help with service project at the historic Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, Texas. Photo: Thora Qaddumi

About 80 volunteers led by Asher transformed the once-neglected resting place of many members of the city’s post-emancipation community. They mowed grass, chopped away heavy overgrowth, hauled debris and planted flowers.

The workers demonstrated the same spirit of Houston that was dramatically shown in 2017 when floodwaters devastated the city. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the world witnessed the heart-warming story of neighbors helping neighbors without concern for the common points of division — race, religion, ethnicity, economic status.

On a far smaller scale, the same story is revealed in the Eagle project of Asher, a 16-year-old Pakistani refugee who is a member of Troop 1881, Sam Houston Area Council, Boy Scouts of America.

A new life in Houston

Asher came to the United States less than three years ago with his father, Johnson Joseph; mother, Fouzia Kanwal; and two younger brothers, Dawood Faris and Ryan. The family had managed to leave Pakistan for Malaysia when Asher was 9 years old. They had survived under difficult circumstances for three years, as refugees in Malaysia, waiting for a chance to begin a new life.

Johnson Joseph, left, with his son, Asher, stand in the Historic Olivewood Cemetery, where they organized a service project.
Johnson Joseph, left, with his son, Asher, stand in the Historic Olivewood Cemetery, where they organized a service project. Photo: Thora Qaddumi

Asher’s parents had always struggled to provide every opportunity they could for their children. Asher’s father, who is from a Christian Pakistani family, puts it simply: “It’s just being a parent.”

He says he made a concerted effort to ensure English would be his children’s “first language.” Even when the children attended schools for refugees, he and his wife worked to prepare them to do well academically.

They took advantage of every opportunity. In Pakistan, Asher and his brother were the only young boys among their friends who learned to swim. During the one month a year when there was a chance they could get lessons, their father drove 30 miles daily and, as he put it, “begged until they were allowed to participate.”

A few days after the family’s arrival in Houston, Asher and Dawood Faris, who is a year younger, were invited to join Boy Scout Troop 1881, sponsored by the Hermann Park Ward. Less than three years later, Asher had advanced in the Scouting program to the point that he was ready for his Eagle Project.

His success at school also was remarkable. Asher is now a sophomore at one of Houston’s leading public high schools — DeBakey High School for Health Professionals.

Getting the work done

To the relief of Asher’s main team of supporters and at the scheduled time, families, teenagers, young children, men and women, boys and girls — Spanish-speaking, English-speaking — arrived ready to work, with smiles on their faces.

Members of the Hermann Park Ward join with others to clean up the historic Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, Texas.
Members of the Hermann Park Ward join with others to clean up the historic Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, Texas. Photo: Thora Qaddumi

Asher and his team were relieved to find they had enough equipment on site to do the job. Many people brought their own tools. Olivewood provided three lawn mowers, and several people brought others. By noon, when the work ended, the entire cemetery had a manicured look.

Little children picked up sticks. Young boys eagerly filled carts with rubbish and took them to the dumpster. High school students joined them with loaded wheelbarrows. Some in the group changed a dry plant bed under the Olivewood sign into a garden of native Texas plants requiring little water.