These Groups Are Helping Refugees Rediscover Nature
Organizations around the world are helping refugees feel welcome via wilderness immersions—and with a record number of displaced people, this movement couldn’t come at a better time
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On a warm July night in a park outside Chicago, Illinois, Nur Aga Rajaie, 16, caught his first hint of nature’s magic. He and a handful of friends had taken a short night hike from their tents, hoping to admire the stars before heading back for campfire s’mores. But the sky wasn’t the only thing sparkling.
“All of a sudden we noticed these flying insects had a beautiful green, glowing light,” Nur Aga told me. “They were lighting up the way. It was just so magical.”
Sure, fireflies are a staple on any summer camping trip, but for Nur Aga, a wildlife-documentary enthusiast, this was about more than pretty insects. He and his family had fled Afghanistan in 2015 after facing direct threats from the Taliban. For months, the Rajaie family lived homeless in Indonesia, where they were later placed in a detention camp, and then a processing camp, before settling in Chicago in 2019.
Two years later, on that dreamy night beneath the stars, entranced by fireflies, the Rajaie brothers encountered a world entirely new to them: the great outdoors.
“In countries where there’s war, people are depressed, and people don’t want to go outside to explore because they’re scared of a bigger danger,” said Nur Aga’s brother Payman, 14.
Nur Aga, Payman, and their oldest brother, Maisam, 18, found their ticket to nature through REACH, a Chicago nonprofit that helps refugee families, particularly teens, find community, support, and confidence via wilderness adventures.
“A lot of our young people had nature where they grew up, but during the periods they grew up, they couldn’t actually get out and explore it because it wasn’t safe, especially at night,” says REACH founder Shana Wills, who’s worked with the refugee community in Chicago since 1991. She notes REACH participants get particularly giddy about the group’s after-dark outings. “Walking in the woods at night to see the stars, to see the fireflies—those things were really restricted because they come from war-torn areas where it wasn’t safe to be out at night.”
Since starting in 2016, REACH has helped more than 150 young people embark on hundreds of wilderness experiences. And it’s not the only organization leveraging the therapeutic benefits of nature to improve the resettlement process.
In Idaho, the Golden Eagle Audubon Society’s New Roots program takes refugee kids and teens on multi-week summer adventures in and beyond Boise, with rafting, camping, and even training in wilderness first aid and map reading. In California, At Home Humanitarian offers adventure mentorship through its Shared Outdoors program. This integration-through-nature movement is emerging internationally, including in countries across Scandinavia as well as Scotland—and the momentum couldn’t come at a better time.
Last year, the world reached a record high of more than 84 million forcibly displaced people across the globe, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Nearly 27 million are refugees, defined by the UNHCR as those who “fled war, violence, conflict, or persecution, and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.”
Here in the U.S., the Biden administration vowed 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 for fiscal year 2022.
Welcoming more displaced people is important, particularly after tragedies like the August 2021 Afghanistan crisis. But simply opening our country’s borders doesn’t always cut it. “It really takes about three solid years for refugees to even start getting their footing,” says Wills.
Under the current U.S. resettlement process, agencies like the International Rescue Committee assist refugees for their first 90 days in the U.S. This includes finding housing, securing jobs, enrolling in English-language classes, and getting kids into schools. After that, due to agency budget constraints, newcomers are mostly on their own.
“After six months to a year is when all the backlash and trauma comes to the forefront,” Wills says. “It’s important that they have people who actually pay attention and care for them, who actually befriend them—and my best friends, the people who I love the most in my life, are the people I’ve spent time in the outdoors with.”
Wills launched REACH because she knew firsthand how outdoor adventures could lead to camaraderie and friendship. And she personally finds solace through hiking, cycling, and paddling. Introducing refugee teens to outdoor sports, she reasoned, might help them find peace in their own lives, in addition to building confidence and community.
Instead of playing into a trauma-centric stereotype, forcing participants to rehash difficult pasts, REACH focuses on fun and achievement. Wills and her volunteers invite participating teens to push boundaries and test their limits. Time and again, they rise to meet the challenges.
Take mountain-biking enthusiast Lina Al Maeeni, 14, whose family fled Iraq and landed in Chicago in 2015. That first mountain-biking trip “was nerve-racking; I could hear my heart beating in my ear,” she told me. “I was the only girl in the group, and I kept telling myself I’m never doing this again. Then at the end I was like, well…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 by local refugee parents,” she says. “By 2018, many families began asking if their daughters could join as well.” Now REACH’s participant breakdown is about 55 percent boys, 45 percent girls.
And REACH’s young women have a bold role model in Lina’s mother, Rasha Al Hasnawi.
“[Rasha] will wear her hijab and climb walls, she will jump into rivers—she has done every single thing we’ve asked her to do,” says Wills, who notes that as refugee moms watched their children transform, they yearned to join REACH’s outdoor adventures too.
“I think mothers in particular are cooped up in their homes, especially when they’re newcomers,” Wills says, pointing to REACH’s family programming, including weekend trips and nature playgroups, as outlets for refugee moms. “They’re so preoccupied with taking care of the family, making sure everybody’s happy, food’s on the table, and the house is clean. Getting outside to experience life, let alone nature, is really important for them.”
In fact, after a two-day camping trip in 2020, one Syrian single mother of three REACH participants gave Wills some of the program’s most touching feedback to date. “She came up to me and was like, ‘Shana, I have to tell you something, and I’m not kidding. This is the most peaceful experience I’ve had in my entire life,’” Wills says. “And she repeated it: ‘in my entire life.’”
These stories are moving, but one minute of TV news broadcasts is all it takes to remember just how divided the U.S. is when it comes to welcoming displaced people. That disconnect was obvious during the first REACH camping trip in 2016.
“I remember one of the park rangers came up to my intern and asked her if she felt safe because of the kids we were with,” Wills says. “It was like a catch-22. I saw [REACH] worked for refugee kids; they loved it. The flipside is the mainstream community in our country still doesn’t understand who these kids are. Refugee youth need to make sense of the world by getting out in this country and claiming their part in it. This is their country now too, right?”
But the reaction isn’t all negative. Many community members are excited to support these organizations, and some can often learn a thing or two from participants who’ve turned from novice adventurers to passionate environmental stewards.
“We try to incorporate conservation activities every place we go,” says Liz Urban, program director of the Golden Eagle Audubon Society’s New Roots initiative in Idaho. “We talk about land ethics and shared space. These public lands belong to everybody, and it’s great to see [the participants’] ownership and interest in these public spaces.”
One tactical way Urban’s group cultivates environmental stewardship and community backing: a pollinator garden in Boise’s Warm Springs Park, which New Roots participants have proudly helped build from the ground up over the past seven years.
“The area had been completely undeveloped; the students were involved from the initial cleanup and putting in the first plants,” says Urban, noting New Roots participants now visit the garden to monitor milkweed and look for monarchs. “It’s become a community resource that thousands of people walk by every day, and this is something [New Roots teens] really feel involved in. They know they’ve made a difference.”