Refugee Run Club

Kelly Cohen-Mazurowski | March 18, 2014

Photo: Aby Rao

Photo: Aby Rao

Nearly every day, new refugees from Iraq, Iran, Burma, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea come to Durham, North Carolina. Those of us who work in refugee resettlement, social services and our local public schools get to know these families, but for many in our community, refugees remain invisible. They live in different apartment complexes, shop in different stores and speak different languages.

One way that CWS tries to bridge the gap between refugees and long-time community members here in Durham is through Refugee Run Club.

Each Saturday morning long-time North Carolinians, immigrants from around the world, college students and new arrival refugees meet at an apartment complex where many refugees live. As they gather in a loose circle, people shake hands, laugh and begin to introduce themselves. Usually, people say their names, what country they were born in and how long they’ve been in Durham. I’m always struck by the way that our refugee clients take such pride in saying the precise number of days they’ve been in the United States, even when they’ve been here 4-5 months or more.

After our brief introductions, we run. Sometimes we run a loop of 3-5 miles around the apartment complex and sometimes we take field trips to local running paths. These morning runs provide refugee clients with ideas for new places to go in the community and empower them to understand that they can leave their apartment complexes. This is particularly important given that studies show the longer immigrants remain in the United States, the more their eating habits look like the typical American’s. More on that here.

Photo: Aby Rao

Photo: Aby Rao

Not only is a run club a chance to get some exercise, it also provides a new way for locals to develop relationships with new arrivals.  While many community members might not feel comfortable assisting with an English as Second Language class or taking a refugee to a doctor’s appointment, a run is a natural part of their week. If community members are fast enough to keep up with refugee runners, they learn what it’s like to experience American life for the first time. Often clients will share about the job search, what it’s like to shop at Wal-Mart or how they are keeping up with family members in their home countries.

As we run, we often practice vocabulary like “trail, forest, street, stoplight.” Sometimes refugees teach us the words for these terms in Arabic, Tigrinya or French.  When we return from our morning jog, the runners always wait on the sidewalk until all of the Run Clubbers get back. When the weather is nice family members and neighbors will join on the pavement and cheer for their favorite runners as they cross the finish line.

A few weeks ago I asked a group of our fastest Sudanese guys, “Who finished first? Who won?”  One of the young men smiled back and me and said, “We all finished together.” I hope that Run Club is like that – that across nationalities, languages and life experience, it gives us an opportunity to share something in common, to all finish together.

Kelly Cohen-Mazurowski, Community Resource Coordinator, CWS-RDU