Refuge in the Wild

For immigrants and refugees, many of whom have fled war and persecution, Colorado’s public lands and open landscapes offer a chance to heal.

The Colorado outdoor community continues to expand beyond the stereotypical, happy, smiling, flannel-wearing white couple in a van with an Instagram hashtag. A rising tide of American ethnic and minority groups—from Brown Girls Climb to Natives Outdoors (see page 19) to Out There Adventures—have been raising awareness when it comes to the diversification of the state’s outdoor communities. Still, it’s rare for those who have been left out of the conversation for so long to venture into the woods without being reminded that they are not the status quo. But they have some company from outside the U.S.

Over the past year, the state of Colorado has become home to several hundred newly-arrived immigrants, many from Muslim-majority countries. Sixteen percent of Denver’s population is not born in the U.S.—and that number could be much higher given the number of undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrants who reside in the metro area. This demographic change comes during a time when the Trump administration’s aggressive, anti-immigration policies—including the controversial ban on travel from six Muslim countries and the end of DACA protection for rigorously vetted young adults who have lived their whole lives in the U.S.—have threatened the livelihood and safety of refugees and immigrants seeking resettlement here.

Refugees—those displaced by war, disaster and political persecution—are a reality all nations must face. For the first time in history, the number of displaced people in the world has topped 60 million—and more than half of those are children. Despite this staggering statistic, less than one percent of refugees are approved for resettlement in another country—and from October 1, 2017 until the end of February, 2018, Colorado only accepted 171 refugees. With a processing time of 18-24 months, refugees who come to the U.S. are highly vetted group—more so than immigrants or tourists. However, a strict qualification of what constitutes a refugee—for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group—means that immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many of whom live in the Denver area, are not considered refugees, and lack similar asylum protection.

Once here, however, many of these immigrants and refugees are finding joy in connecting with themselves and people like them in nature, and in the calmness that being outdoors fosters. Despite the challenges of making a new home here and dealing with stereotypes of what an “outdoorsy” person looks like, they are finding inspiration in the wild. The following refugees and immigrants are now a growing part of the outdoor conversation:


A childhood of summer weekend picnics with her family and days playing on her family dunam (a 1,000-square plot of family land) in Jordan didn’t quite prepare Muna Oweidat for her first backpacking experience—an intense NOLS program, part of her MBA degree, that took her across the Continental Divide.

Looking back, the data analyst appreciates the nature and power of the community she found. Now, Muna has rooted her newfound love of the outdoors firmly in the mountains and climbing.

“Nature is the place I go to reenergize and connect with life just like when I was a kid but with more freedom and intention,” she says.


Mariam Shareefy might be new to the U.S., but she plans on changing the course of history during her time here—she has already done so in the midst of a war. After her family fled to Pakistan from Afghanistan for a safer childhood and better education, Shareefy was hesitant to return to Afghanistan when she was older. However, seeing the beauty of the mountains in northern Afghanistan changed her mind. “It felt like home, just touching those rocks and seeing that beauty was so calming. It was like therapy,” she explains.

Shareefy spent the next six years looking for a way to immerse herself in Afghanistan’s mountains, and found the chance when she started working at a non-profit that teaches homeless children how to climb. “There are so many similarities between rock climbing and entrepreneurship: setting goals, planning, getting through failure, persistence, problem solving, building confidence,” she says.

The skills Shareefy taught on the rock—problem solving, confidence, and careful preparation—gave the kids a chance to make a living and get off the streets, where they are the highest risk victims of suicide bombings. In fact, one of Mariam’s own students was killed in one blast.

Despite the challenging environment, several of her students have gone on to create businesses and generate enough income to support themselves, and separate themselves from the violence on the streets.

“Huma was one of my best students, a strong climber and an entrepreneur. She was skilled at crafting,” Shareefy says. “We bought her the materials she needed to make decorative items, and now she uses those skills to earn her own money.”

Sadly, Shareefy had to quit the project for security reasons, but she hasn’t lost sight of her dream to share the freedom and confidence she found on the wall. She says, “I want to use rock climbing as a way for Afghan refugees in Colorado to adapt and more easily assimilate into the U.S. culture.”


Sina Solouk, an aspiring mountain bike racer, is from Iran, but he hasn’t been back in years. Like many avid nature lovers, he works at REI during the day to support his addiction to outdoor sports, but racing his bike brings him the greatest joy. He’s really good at it, too—during the 2016 season, he made the podium in 13 out of 15 Colorado races. And although he enjoys road races, his heart belongs to the rocky and varied terrain on mountain bike racing. “I love exploring new trails and new places. My relationship with the outdoors is that I love to go outdoors to ride my bike and improve skills and speed. I want to be outside every day,” he told Cranked magazine.

Growing up in Tehran, a city of 12-15 million people, Sina and his family’s relationship to the outdoors consisted of gardening and exploring the mountain foothills on the weekends. He would have loved to stay and race bikes in Iran, but persecution against his faith—Sina is Bahá’í—forced him to choose between his family and his career. After crossing over to Turkey, Sina petitioned for refugee status, and moved to the U.S.

Ironically, although crossing the border between three countries and several states (since moving to the US, Sina has lived in Washington, Colorado and Utah) has allowed him to see and explore more than he ever could have in Iran, his financial situation keeps him from riding as much as he wants. At home in Iran, he says, he could ride all day and explore in nature. Here, he has to focus on paying bills, and training during rare free time.


When Denise and Chris Lines founded Growing Colorado Kids, a farm non-profit designed to counter the lack of fresh and nutritious produce available to Denver refugees, they worked out of a collection of backyard plots cobbled together to create a farm. Ten years down the road, they’re located on a five-acre plot in Commerce, complete with a horse, two alpacas, chickens, fresh air and sweeping views of the mountains. Growing Colorado Kids serves dozens of refugee kids through the help of thousands of hours of volunteer work. Their mission, to reduce hunger, improve nutrition, and provide experiential learning opportunities for refugee youth through organic farming, is working.

“For the kids, the chance to spend a Saturday on the farm is not frivolous—young men are asked to choose between rugby practice and farm time,” explains Denise. “The youth are responsible—we ask them to make a seasonal commitment.”

On a recent Saturday, the sounds of kids planting new onions and putting up hoop houses blends with their chatter. Eh Ku, a spirited teenager, pivots easily in conversation. “Do you know about Karen language? Or where we are from?” she asks. Then she quietly confides, “I feel like the boys on my building team don’t need me because I’m a girl.” The situation is quickly rectified, and everyone goes back to work. The farm, it turns out, is the great equalizer.

One spindly tree among particular stands out here, its wiggly branches seemingly out of place next to the scrubby, spindly bushes beside it.

“Denise planted that,” a volunteer tour guide explains. “It came in a bouquet of flowers as a filler. She stuck it in the ground, and it just—grew. That was three years ago.” Many of the kids on this farm were born on different continents and brought to Denver, where they had to assimilate with a new culture. They were planted here, too, and despite a lack of resources, they just—grew.

Sonya Pevzner is a freelance writer and diversity advocate based in Boulder, Colorado. She draws frequently from her experience as a queer Russian-Jewish refugee to connect with the various diverse communities around her. You can reach her at 

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