“I don’t really like to run,” he casually told me as we walked down several stone steps leading to a large fountain in the middle of a great green lawn. “That’s okay,” I replied, misunderstanding his point, “You don’t have to run if you don’t want to. We will always check in with you to see if we need to slow down.” “No,” he shook his head while spreading his hands out in front of him. “I don’t know how to explain,” he started. Of course, English is not his first language. In fact, he only arrived from Syria within the past 6 months with fairly limited English proficiency. So, there is this pause in the conversation when I realize I need to stop talking and just listen more.
“I don’t like to run because there is no place or space to do it,” he continued. “Right now, though, I feel so happy.” At that moment, his face lit up and the powder blue polo shirt he was wearing seemed to capture the vividness of the summer sky above us. I turned to look at him directly, “I’m so glad you are happy,” I offered. “No, no. You don’t understand. You see? How do I explain?” he excitedly swept his hands from side to side with palms up in front of him. “Here. I want to run. There is so much space. It is so big and beautiful. I DO want to run.” I glanced around us and spotted the blooming rose bushes in the distance, the pond to our right with gorgeous weeping willows dangling their leaves and branches into its water, and the blur of passing REACH participants as they rushed to be the first kissed by the refreshing mist of the fountain ahead of us.
“I am so happy here. It is so different than the city with the small streets and little trees. There is so much space, “he smiled. “Yes. I understand. You can feel free and breathe in the air,” I added. “Yes, exactly," he continued, "I can run. I can breathe. I feel free. There is space. It is not like our apartment, which is so small.”
Today, we brought a group of new and old youth participants to the Chicago Botanic Garden. It was the first day of our 2017 Summer Adventure Camp. Fourteen boys attended, representing Burma, the DRC, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, the Sudan, and Syria. We didn't do anything extraordinary or "adventurous." Rather, we strolled through the gardens, allowing time for the kids to run around, take photos and videos, and simply soak in the quiet beauty. Yet, it’s moments like these that strike me with such intensity because they touch on the very essence of WHY I wanted to create Refugee Education & Adventure Challenge (REACH). It’s about the 14 year old refugee boy – new to REACH that morning, quiet and shy on the van ride out – who a few hours into the day expresses himself with such fervor and excitement and who is suddenly awed by the realization that YES, he can certainly run again, breathe again, commune with nature again, that this strange land is actually a vast space of possibilities and wonder, and perhaps, eventually a place that he can feel confident calling 'home.'