Hikes and swims: firsts for refugees

A smile spreads across 18-year-old Neby Meldeyesus’s face, as the smell of the gumtrees reminds him of his home back in Ethiopia. The hikers are a group of young refugees, migrants and Australian volunteers. The red dust from the path blemishes their sneakers. Green trees rustle in the wind, as flares of sunlight shine through their leaves.

For those who come across the seas, resettling into a new country with an entirely different culture can be a confronting experience. For the 900,000 refugees who’ve arrived in Australia since 1947, experiences can be riddled with uncertainty and feelings of displacement.

It’s now been four years since Neby migrated to Australia and went camping with First Hike Project. The organisation aims to make refugees feel at home by welcoming them to the wonders and weirdness of hiking in the bush.

“[The hike] was my first thing to do after I came here. [Before], I would just go to school and come back home. I was not involved in anything else,” Neby says.

Neby explains back in his homeland, community is important. When he arrived in Australia with his mother and sister, that sense of togetherness disintegrated. He didn’t have a support network. He didn’t know anyone. FHP changed that.

“We stayed up late telling stories about our homes. People from the Middle East, Central Africa, Asia [were] all in a circle, telling funny stories. Some were sad stories. A guy from Syria was talking about the war and how he’d lost friends,” Neby says.

In today’s age, there are fewer opportunities to share stories close to the heart, according to Neby. He believes sharing these experiences around the warmth of a campfire, reminds him of being back home with his friends. One of the refugees he hiked with is now his barber and the “only person he trusts with his hair”. He’d struggled finding someone in Australia who understood how to cut really curly, hard hair.

FHP founder Neil McCulloch is an immigrant from South Africa himself. He started the program in 2015 after seeing the benefits of immersing refugees in what Australia has to offer, far from the distraction of bustling city life.

Mr McCulloch wanted to introduce refugees to the beauty of the Australian bush. Photo: First Hike Project.

“The biggest thrill I get is seeing them open up and make friends in an environment where there’s no pressure or adults with whistles. There’s a lot of freedom around our events,” says Mr McCulloch.

Curtin University senior lecturer Lisa Hartley researches refugee resettlement issues. She recognises refugees are often stripped of their freedom. She explains detention centres deprive people of their liberty by preventing them from making simple choices like what to eat.

But at FHP, Mr McCulloch says they focus on getting the participants involved in choosing what food they take on the hikes. He says Australian food can be tasteless for these kids, with camp food being on a whole new level of bland. On the first camp, Mr McCulloch’s friend from Pakistan made a big pot of biriyani for the hungry hikers. Mr McCulloch says this piece of freedom helps the refugees to feel like their culture is appreciated.  

For Mr McCulloch, a moment from a hike in Melbourne with a group of Somali kids will always stand out to him. He says it was a hard hike because they were going up a mountain. Nestled among the trees; the hikers camped at a wild, crowded spot. Mr McCulloch woke up in the morning to the sound of one of the kids singing the Islamic call to prayer. Over the top of the mountain, the sun was waking. Mr McCulloch watched as the boys emerged from their tents for their morning prayers. At the top of a mountain in Australia, Mr McCulloch witnessed the integration of cultures.

“I’ll always remember that as a really cool moment where there was a real mix of cultures and for me that’s what it’s all about. It epitomises everything that I love about the project.”

Many refugees have never hiked before coming to Australia. Photo: First Hike Project.

This experience helped him to understand resettlement programs shouldn’t be about imposing Australian culture and forcing migrants to forget theirs. It’s about interacting on “a level playing field”. It’s about blending the best aspects of different cultures and learning from each other, to sculpt a harmonious, multicultural society.

Sophie Stewart, who grew up next door to a family of East Timorese refugees, devotes much of her life to this idea. From a young age, she observed the plight of refugees and their struggle to resettle in Australia following years of persecution. In 2016, Ms Stewart started Swim for Refugees.

 “It’s more than just teaching people how to swim. It’s a program that extends a hand of welcome to people from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds. It builds a community with existing Australians.”

Being in and around the water is entwined into the fabric of Australian culture. We go to the beach, sit by the Swan River and attend BBQs near backyard pools. Ms Stewart says refugees usually don’t know how to swim, because they haven’t come from an aquatic background. This affects their ability to embrace the Australian lifestyle. They get left behind.

A typical Saturday morning for Ms Stewart includes diving into the pool at the University of Western Australia’s Aquatic Centre, surrounded by the beaming smiles of refugee children splashing everywhere. The swimming lessons give refugees a chance to connect with everyday Australians. It breaks down barriers and misconceptions about culture for people from both sides.

“Sometimes you have someone in a bikini teaching someone in a burkini, and they’re getting along like a house on fire,” Ms Stewart laughs. She believes refugees who have a community to support them, thrive.

Dr Hartley agrees. She began visiting detention centres 15 years ago. She’s met people who’ve suffered torture. She’s seen them deteriorate from being hopeful, to struck down. She’s witnessed their dehumanisation. According to Dr Hartley, having a new place to live and feel part of a community is critical, especially after losing your home and fleeing persecution. Programs like FHP and SFR are able to welcome those who have lived that experience. But while Dr Hartley supports these alternative community resettlement programs, she says the Australian government has a role to play.

“Governments are pivotal in enabling resettlement. [They] can’t be let off the hook. There is a tendency for the government to look to the community sector to do their bit to help settle people.”

For Neby, moving had been difficult. But since going on his first hike, the smell of the gumtrees now reminds him of his new home: Australia. He belongs with the community. Whether it be through a hike along the Bibbulmun track, or regular swimming lessons, all methods of resettlement for refugees are vital for the progression of Australia as a multicultural, humanitarian society.

Resettlement programs help refugees call Australia home. Photo: First Hike Project.

Categories: Community, Culture

Tagged as: , ,