The refuge of nature activities  

By: Alisa Samuel

Published on: September 6th, 2023

“Refugees are people who have been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence [and have] a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.” 

Over 200,000 new refugees have recently gained permanent residence in Canada. In a 2017 study published in Leisure Sciences, research professors Jane Hurly and Gordon J. Walker at Royal Roads University and University of Alberta, respectively, recruited four refugees from Africa and the Middle East with the help of Catholic Social Services Canada to join an overnight camping trip in northern Alberta in the winter of 2015. They wanted to know if time spent in nature, doing vacation activities like ice fishing, forest walks, and community bonfires, would improve the refugees’ mental wellbeing and help them adjust comfortably to a new life in Canada.  

The Cambridge Dictionary defines nature as “all the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all the features, forces, and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, the production of young animals or plants, and growth.”  

Because nature offers fresh air to breathe, silence to retreat away from daily stress, and open spaces like gardens and parks where you can enjoy time with friends and family, it is generally known to have a calming effect. Because its scenery raises meaningful questions and thoughts about creation, consciousness, and connection, nature also inspires a sense of spirituality in people.  

Nature, however, can also be inaccessible and unpredictable. “Newcomers may face constraints to outdoor leisure that include lack of time, limited income, lack of transportation, and perceived discrimination,” say the researchers “Fear has been found to constrain many newcomers regardless of race and ethnicity. Fears included those of the unknown, experiencing untamed landscapes, getting lost, and, for women, fear of sexual assaults.” 

After Hurly and Walker interviewed the study participants about their Albertan camping experiences, they interpreted the interview data with verified methods of analysis to better understand refugee settlement problems, in the hope that their findings can inform the development of services for this “vulnerable sector of immigrants.” 

The researchers found that the participants did in fact feel trauma and nervousness at times. Though they believed the area they were living in was fascinatingly beautiful and engaging, the howling of wolves, for example, signalled danger to one of the African refugees: “I feared I heard some kind of hyenas at night. So, I said, ‘What if I came across a hyena when I move out?’ I was a bit scared. I stayed in my cabin till morning.” Another participant, a man from Lebanon, remembered his painful past of “harassment, violence, and racism” during the sojourn in his old country when looking at fir trees around a lake.  

With self-determination and trust-worthy support from park staff and agency members, however, both refugees came to realize the relative safety of Canada and were then able to create positive memories within its landscape. All four study participants felt free to make friends, to learn new activities with their kids, and to hope towards a future where they might no longer free watchful eyes or the censure of relatives.  

Upon reflection of their camping experience, “participants described feelings of well-being and optimism about living in Canada [and they] described their plans for advancing their education, finding a job, and [securely working towards other aspirations].” 

“The outdoor experience appeared to have inspired feelings of well-being, manifested in expressions of mastery, achievement, pride determination, courage, and autonomy,” noted the researchers. “[They] were inspired by what they had experienced at the outdoor camp, and their experiences of connectedness to the natural world, and the winter activities they mastered […] elevated their sense of belonging and connectedness to Canada.” 

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