These groups help refugees rediscover nature

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On a warm July night in a park outside Chicago, Illinois, 16-year-old Noor Agha Rajai caught his first hint of nature’s magic. He and a few friends had taken a short night’s walk from their tents, hoping to admire the stars before heading back to the s’mores campfire. But the universe wasn’t the only thing shimmering.

“Suddenly, we noticed that these flying insects had a beautiful glowing green light,” Nur Agha told me. “They were lighting the way. It was very charming.”

Sure, fireflies are a staple on any summer camping trip, but for Noor Agha, a fan of documentary wildlife, this was more than just pretty insects. He and his family had fled Afghanistan in 2015 after facing direct threats from the Taliban. For several months, the Rajai family lived homeless in Indonesia, where they were later placed in a concentration camp, and then in a processing camp, before settling in Chicago in 2019.

Two years later, on that dreamy night under the stars, enchanted by fireflies, the Rajaei brothers encounter a whole new world for them: the great outdoors.

“In countries that are at war, people get depressed, people don’t want to go out exploring because they are afraid of greater danger,” said Payman, 14-year-old brother of Nur Agha.

Noor Agha, Payman, and their older brother Maysam, 18, found their ticket to nature through REACH, a Chicago nonprofit that helps refugee families, especially teens, find community, support, and trust through wilderness adventures.

“A lot of our youth King REACH founder Shana Wells, who has worked with the refugee community in Chicago since 1991, says she notes that REACH participants feel particularly dizzy about group outings after dark. “Walking in the woods at night to see the stars, to see the fireflies – these things were really limiting because they come from war-torn areas where it wasn’t safe to go out at night.”

Since the beginning of 2016, REACH has helped more than 150 young people embark on hundreds of wildlife experiences. And it’s not the only organization that is taking advantage of the healing benefits of nature to improve the resettlement process.

In Idaho, the Golden Eagle Audubon Society’s new Roots Program takes refugee children and teens on multi-week summer adventures in and out of Boise, with kayaking, camping, and even first aid training in the wilderness and map reading. In California, At Home Humanitarian offers adventure mentorship through the Shared Outdoors Program. This integration movement through nature is beginning to emerge internationally, including in countries across Scandinavia as well as in Scotland – and the momentum could not have come at a better time.

Last year, the world reached a record high of more than 84 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Nearly 27 million refugees, defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as “fleeing war, violence, conflict or persecution, have crossed international borders in search of safety in another country”.

Here in the US, the Biden administration has pledged to raise the cap on refugees who can enter the country annually from 15,000 — a historically low number set during the Trump era — to 125,000 in fiscal 2022.

Welcoming more displaced people is important, especially after tragedies like the Afghanistan crisis in August 2021. But just opening our country’s borders doesn’t always cut it. “It really takes about three solid years for the refugees to start getting a foothold,” Wells says.

Under the current resettlement process in the United States, agencies such as the International Rescue Committee assist refugees in their first 90 days in the United States, which includes finding housing, securing jobs, enrolling in English language classes, and getting children into school. Then, due to the agency’s budget constraints, newcomers are often on their own.

“After six months to a year, all the reactions and shocks come to the fore,” Wells says. “It’s important that they have people who really care and who care about them, who actually befriend them — and my close friends, the people I love the most in my life, are the people I’ve spent time outdoors with.”

Wills launched REACH because she knew firsthand how outdoor adventures can lead to camaraderie and friendship. She finds solace in person through hiking, biking and kayaking. She believed that introducing refugee teens to exercise in the great outdoors could help them find peace in their lives, as well as build trust and community.

Rather than playing into the trauma-centered stereotype, forcing participants to rehash the difficult past, REACH focuses on fun and achievement. Wells and its volunteers invite participating teens to push boundaries and test their limits. Time and time again, they rise to meet challenges.

Take, for example, 14-year-old mountain biking enthusiast Lina Al-Moaini, whose family fled Iraq and landed in Chicago in 2015. My first mountain biking trip was “nervous; I could hear my heartbeat,” she told me. In my ear.” “I was the only girl in the group, and I kept telling myself I would never do this again. Then at the end I was like, OK… Maybe I will.”

Lina made REACH history as the first female participant in 2018. Wills originally launched the program “for refugee boys following a direct request from local refugee parents,” she said. By 2018, many families began to wonder if their daughters could join, too. Now the REACH participant split is about 55 percent boys, and 45 percent girls.

Rich young women set a bold role model in Lina’s mother, Rasha Al-Muaini.

“[Rasha] She would wear her veil and climb walls, she would jump into rivers – she did everything we asked her to do,” says Wells, who noted that while refugee mothers watched their children transform, they were eager to join REACH’s outdoor adventures too.

“I think mothers especially stay home, especially when they are newcomers,” Wells says, referring to REACH’s family programs, including weekend trips and nature playgroups, as outlets for refugee mothers. “They are so busy taking care of the family, making sure that everyone is happy, the food is on the table, and the house is clean. Getting out to experience life, not to mention nature, is really important to them.”

In fact, after a two-day camping trip in 2020, a single Syrian mother of three REACH participants gave some of the program’s most poignant comments to date. “She came to me and was like, ‘Shana, I have to tell you something, I’m not kidding. This is the most peaceful experience I’ve had in my entire life.’ And I repeated it: ‘in all my life.'”

These stories are touching, but one minute of TV news broadcast is all it takes to remember how divided the United States is when it comes to welcoming the displaced. This disconnect was evident during REACH’s first camping trip in 2016.

“I remember a park ranger coming up to an intern and asking her if she felt safe because of the kids we were with,” Wells says. “It was like a catch 22 game. I’ve seen [REACH] She worked for refugee children. They loved this. The other side is that the prevailing society in our country still does not understand who these children are. Refugee youth need to understand the world by going out in this country and claiming their part in it. This is their country now too, isn’t it? “

But the reaction is not all negative. Many community members are excited to support these organizations, and some can learn a thing or two from participants who have gone from novice adventurers to enthusiastic environmental stewards.

“We try to incorporate conservation activities everywhere we go,” says Liz Urban, program director for the New Roots Initiative for the Golden Eagle Audubon Society in Idaho. “We talk about the ethic of shared land and space. This public land belongs to everyone, and it’s great to see [the participants’] ownership and interest in these public spaces.”

One tactical way the Urban group cultivates environmental stewardship and community support: the pollinator garden at Boise’s Warm Springs Park, which New Roots participants have proudly helped build from the ground up over the past seven years.

The area was completely undeveloped; The students have been involved from the initial clean-up and placing the first plants,” says Urban, noting that New Roots participants are now visiting the garden to observe milkweed and hunt for kings. “It has become a community resource that thousands of people pass through every day, and that’s something [New Roots teens] I really feel like participating in it. They know they’ve made a difference.”

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