Albuquerque, New Mexico, might seem like a random place for a refugee family to end up.
But things have gotten so bad in parts of the world — in war-torn Syria, in particular — that thousands of families are entering and spreading across hundreds of different cities in the U.S.
And while New Mexico might not be considered a premiere landing spot (most families end up in New York and California), it’s definitely not a bad place to be. Just take a look:
One program in Albuquerque wants to use the area’s stunning desert landscape to help refugee kids connect with their new home.
The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance is teaming up with the Catholic Charities Refugee Mentoring Program to take these brand-new New Mexicans out into the wild.
It’s a summer camp for kids who are here to find a better life, and it’s called the Refugee Wilderness Explorers Program.
“This was a way to connect them to experiences they had where they’re from, and make them feel more at home,” says Danielle Hernandez, the mentoring program coordinator.
She came up with the idea over a cup of coffee with Endion Schichtel, the Alliance’s wilderness narrative coordinator, while the two were brainstorming ideas to keep the kids engaged during summer vacation — a time when they’re the most disconnected from their peers and, often, feeling isolated in their new home.
Twice a week, Hernandez and Schichtel take groups of kids out into the wilderness to explore.
Many of them are completely new to America, fresh from places in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America.
They hike the mountains, explore trails, and stop to identify plants and bugs. The kids are also encouraged to draw or write about the nature they encounter — a good exercise to help them connect with the landscape and practice their English at the same time.
For many of them, this is their first good look at the strange new place they call home.
“One time we were on top of the mountain looking out over the city,” Schichtle recalls. “And the kids were [joking], ‘I can see the ocean over there! I can see Colorado!’ They know they’re in America, and they’re in New Mexico, but they have no idea where that is. When they first got here, this is not at all what they pictured America looking like. Seeing them have that realization is really special.”
But beyond just developing a physical connection to their new home, wilderness camp gives these refugee kids a chance to be just that: kids.
“These kids are often the interpreters for their household; they’re often the head of their household,” Hernandez says. “They’re the only one who knows how to use the bus or make change at the grocery store. They have to interpret medical information for their parents who are often in poor health.”
It’s a lot for any young person, especially one who’s been through what some of these kids have.
So whether you believe in a spiritual connection with nature or not, maybe a chance to play with bugs and goof around with new friends is exactly what these kids need.
“They’re just kids,” Hernandez says. “And every child needs a childhood.”