Finding a new path forward: How a Nature Club helps Syrian refugee and Jordanian youth

Report
from Mercy Corps
Published on 04 Nov 2019 View Original

By Neil Pohl

I’m Isra’a and I’m originally from Syria and now live in Irbid, Jordan with my son. Here’s how hiking and climbing are helping shape my journey.

Shortly after arriving in Jordan, I enrolled in university to study business management, but I wasn’t able to continue because of financial issues. Since then, I’ve made an effort to be active in my community, volunteering with different organizations in my free time. It can be challenging to manage my time as a mother and an active community member, but with my mother’s support, we make it work.

As my volunteer commitments were coming to an end, I was eager to find a new opportunity. That’s when my friend, who previously participated in the Nature Club, told me about the program. It’s a program where young people can explore nature through adventure sports, learn how to manage emotions and develop key life skills. It sounded great. I love being outside and trying new things, so I was very excited to join.

Venturing to new heights

Before I started with Mercy Corps’ Nature Club, I thought that climbing and hiking were sports that only “experts” could do, so I thought we’d only be going on short hikes and watching other people climb. I was thrilled once I found out that we’d be learning how to climb and hike.

I’m afraid of heights so the thought of climbing was both exciting and terrifying. Also, the thought of putting my life in someone else’s hands was difficult to let go of at first. After some time, and comprehensive safety training, we started to trust ourselves and each other as climbers and belayers. This trust between us helped create a bond as teammates and friends.

The encouragement from the coaches and enthusiasm of the other girls created a place where I felt supported.

We learn how to make decisions, solve problems and set goals in a safe and supportive environment. Even when we’re on the trail and feeling tired, we cheer each other on so we stay motivated. Challenges become more doable when it’s a group effort.

Being part of a green initiative

We spend a lot of time outside together, hiking and exploring. It’s made us all care even more about the environment. Every time we’re out, we see plastic bags flying in the air, by the trees, and on the hiking trails. Actually, there are so many plastic bags littered in Jordan that many people call them the national bird.

Seeing all the plastic bags flying in the air and on the trails has inspired us to take action. As part of our final project with the Nature Club, we started the Green Bird initiative. The goal is to both raise awareness and reduce the use of single-use plastics. The girls and I designed, developed and distributed nearly 275 reusable (and biodegradable!) bags — the Green Bird.

It was my idea to include biodegradable seed packets in each bag, with a message encouraging people to pick up a littered plastic bag and plant seeds in its place. When everyone liked the idea, I felt like it was my responsibility to make it happen. I was in charge of contacting a packaging company to prepare and design the seed packets.

This experience required me to put my communication and planning skills into action, and I think they improved in the process.

Environmental awareness has followed me into my personal life as well. Every day, I’m making more planet-friendly choices and teaching my son how to do it, too. When we’re out and he has a snack, I encourage him to hold on to trash until we find a trash bin.

Taking on daily challenges

After being in Nature Club, I’ve noticed that I’ve become more patient in other areas of my life. My parents see it too. When I’m feeling stressed, I just leave the room and practice the breathing techniques we practiced during the program.

Being more aware of how stress affects my brain and learning how to better manage my emotions through meditation helps me stay calm and make better decisions.

Through my experience with the Nature Club, I realized that the things I didn’t like about myself are actually strong traits I am now proud of. Now I feel more equipped to handle life’s many challenges and the stress that comes with them.

Since 2014, Mercy Corps’ Nature Club, which sits under a broader youth program led by specialized Mercy Corps staff, has used hiking and rock climbing to teach nearly 220 Jordanian and Syrian young people how to manage profound stress and build personal resilience, so they are able to choose a productive path forward.