OPINION: Hiking helps immigrant women adjust to new lives

Credit: Ileana Yustis

Credit: Ileana Yustis

Refugee hiking group brings women of color to Georgia’s outdoor spaces

On an overcast October morning, more than a dozen women give high-fives and cheers as they summit Pine Mountain in Cartersville. They are mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and they are immigrants — some recently arrived — finding their way in America and embracing a love for the outdoors along the way.

It was the final hike of the year for these women in the Refugee Women’s Network (RWN) Hiking Group, and I decided to join them in part because it was something I had never seen firsthand — women of color and immigrant women — taking up space in nature.

Credit: Ileana Yustis

Credit: Ileana Yustis

We know intellectually that outdoor spaces are for everyone and everyone should feel as if they have a claim, but what we also know is that for decades, data has continued to show a lack of representation in national, state and local parks.

Almost 75% of outdoor participants were white, according to the 2021 Outdoor Participation trends report commissioned by the Outdoor Foundation. Even during a pandemic that drove 7.1 million more Americans outdoors in 2020 than in 2019, the gains did not change the long-held challenges facing the outdoor industry.

Participation rates declined 7% annually among Asian Americans for the past three years and stagnated for the past three years among Black Americans. Participation rates for Hispanics grew during that time period but remained well below those of white Americans, according to the report issued in June.

When Temple Moore was hired at RWN in August 2020 after relocating from the United Kingdom, she proposed the idea of a hiking group to foster support among immigrant women but also expose them to public green spaces in Georgia.

“There is something beautiful in seeing these diverse women come together and share in the beauty of Georgia,” Moore said. “We have had challenging hikes and the women have held each other physically and metaphorically.”

Outfitted with hiking gear including shoes, socks, poles and more through sponsorships from REI and Patagonia, the women have explored trails ranging from Arabia Mountain to Tallulah Gorge State Park led by a guide from Georgia Conservancy each month for the past eight months.

Credit: Ileana Yustis

Credit: Ileana Yustis

On this final hike, as the women gathered for a pre-hike reflection, Sundus Ibraheem, 61, described the isolation she felt before she joined the hiking group. “They have encouraged me to go back to life again,” said Ibraheem, who came to metro Atlanta four years ago from Iraq. “The amount of love I have from here … they are like a family.”

As the women tackle the terrain of Pine Mountain, a cacophony of dialects swirls through the trees sprinkled with bursts of English. Some of the women resort to smiles and other gestures meant to communicate in ways that transcend words. Whatever the subject, the women have found ways to overcome cultural and language barriers.

Members of the group are from Iraq, Iran, Burma, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia and other countries. Some of the women have been in Georgia for years (at least one, the daughter of immigrants, is Georgia born and raised), but for most of them, Georgia’s network of public trails was foreign to them.

“I have never hiked before. I was always indoors,” said Samantha Hernandez, 19, who is Mexican American. During the pandemic, she thought the group would be a good escape from the noise of so many people being at home. “I wanted to be connected to others and feel the breeze outside,” she said.

Credit: Ileana Yustis

Credit: Ileana Yustis

As they near the top of Pine Mountain, Moore asks the women to pause for three sips of gratitude — a moment to reflect while staying hydrated. After the women share, Moore suggests it is a good time to spend the last leg of the hike up the mountain in silence while absorbing the sights and sounds around them.

It is a type of calm that so many immigrant women in RWN seek, said Shaista Amani. “Usually when we go outside, we worry about so much stuff. In every community, the mother is the person who takes care of the family. With the hiking group, you don’t have to worry about anything.”

For some Afghans, hiking is a new concept, Amani said. “Trust me, I have never hiked. In the evening, people would walk because it was good for their health, but hiking was something very new and especially hiking with the group. You need the knowledge and the confidence to do it.”

Moore said the monthly hikes were designed to expose women to the many outdoor spaces that Georgia has to offer, but also to let them know they don’t need to be with RWN to get outside and enjoy those spaces. In July, the group hosted a family day, to engage children and spouses, and as a result, many of the women have started to take regular walks with their families between the monthly hikes with RWN.

A big part of changing the landscape for people of color in the outdoor industry is making those spaces more welcoming, and that starts from the moment they walk into a store like REI, Moore said. More important even than new hiking shoes is making sure people do not feel like an outsider in those environments.

Moore said they have also invited people with immigrant stories and women of color — such as local birder Corina Newsome — to serve as mentors on hikes so that the women in RWN can see women who look like them not just engaging in outdoor experiences but leading them as well.

In addition, Moore said, the goal is to teach the women the importance of caring for the spaces they are learning to inhabit. “We talk about what citizenship means, and it really is about a sense of belonging,” she said. “You belong to these green spaces, but they also belong to you, so you have to protect them and give back.” On the weekend before their last hike, the women participated in a day of service, weeding at Global Growers, a garden space for refugee and immigrant growers in Decatur, and planting flowers and trees at Milam Park in Clarkston.

After a rest and snack at the top of Pine Mountain, the women began descending, eager to reach the bottom where a meal of Bolani, an Afghan street food of flatbread stuffed with ingredients such as pumpkin and lentils, chips and drinks awaited them. The meals for each hike are prepared by members of the RWN Chef’s Club, which helps women launch catering services.

When Moore told the women the hiking club would take a break before starting up again in March, the general response was a collective dismay. “I’m sad because it is ending,” said Hernandez. But Moore assured them they would all be welcomed back along with a new crop of women and possibly a group for teens — doubling the size of their group and hopefully building a new generation of outdoor lovers.

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