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Two-Wheeled Welcome for Refugees

Camp makes young refugees feel at home

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Trail dust flew as a group of mountain bikers careened through the Foothills, dodging rocks, weaving through ruts, the wind blowing against their faces. The riders, ages 10-18, alive with adrenaline in the hot August sun, weren't typical Boise thrill seekers. They came from refugee camps in war-torn countries across the world, and none were older than teenagers.

"We can all come together if we shift how we think," said Tanya Rush, mastermind and event organizer of Bear Camp Freedom Riders, a program that took this group of roughly 30 refugee kids into the Boise Foothills for a week of mountain biking adventures Aug. 10-14.

Now in its second year, the event was made possible by local organizations, businesses and volunteers united by the idea of introducing refugee children to their new community via bikes. During the five days of riding trails, the kids spent each day gaining confidence, learning biking skills and building community ties.

"By day five, you're getting a hug," said Rush, describing how shy kids opened up over the week, with confidence imbued by riding bicycles and making new friends. Many of these kids, overwhelmed by life in a new and foreign culture, began to see the friendliness of Boise and feel welcomed in their new home.

They come from refugee camps in countries as diverse as Tanzania, Bhutan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Thailand. Each day from 9 a.m.-noon, volunteers took the kids on excursions into the Foothills, teaching not only biking skills, but also trail etiquette and street safety. The camp focused on culturally relative skills like defensive biking that helps the kids adapt to their new community where the rules of the road are different. While many of the kids are already urban bikers who ride bikes to school and across town, leaving the street and hitting the trail opened up a different world of biking possibilities.

"It was awesome," echoed campers Remona Htoo and Tughral Abdul Wahab. Htoo, who came to Boise from Burma via a refugee camp in Thailand, and Abdul Wahab, who recently arrived from Afghanistan, both loved the climb, the new friends and, of course, the rush of tearing down the trail.

"I liked the downhill the best," said Saif Almofraji, an Iraqi refugee who shared this perspective on the love of speed. To avoid riders forming cliques with others from their own cultures, the Bear Camp kids were placed in diverse groups so they would have to make new friends and learn teamwork.

Rush, a former Microsoft employee, first had the idea for the camp after traveling across southeast Asia and Europe. With a new-found global perspective, Rush wanted to do something to help the refugee community in Boise. Sharing a love of biking and a desire to help refugees, a small army of volunteers made up of bike enthusiasts, professionals and Boise State students turned out to get the tires rolling for the camp, organizing campers, coordinating activities and acquiring bikes. Local businesses, too, rallied behind Bear Camp with donations of money, food and equipment.

The August jaunts into the Foothills weren't designed to be easy--one ride went from Camel's Back Park to Corrals Trail near Bogus Basin Road, 13 miles in the sun--but the kids were always up to the challenge.

"They never complained on the uphill," said Meg Sandy, a pro rider volunteer, drawing a comparison between American kids she has taken in the past who were more prone to cavil at climbing. Sandy competes nationally, recently taking third in the National Mountain Bike Series for women ages 30-39 expert level in Park City, Utah, in 2008.

Sandy described how the kids kept pace with her on the fast downhill parts, picking perfect lines through the technical areas of the trails. Some of the kids entered the camp as already skilled riders, products of cultures where bicycles are a way of life. Rush watched kids perform tricks sitting on the handlebars and pedaling. But the fun didn't end on the trail. After the weeklong camp, riders celebrated with a barbecue and an intense game of soccer, complete with the occasional backflip.

Boise's local office of the International Rescue Committee was in charge of organizing the kids. Ellen Albus, the youth coordinator, was thrilled at the opportunity for both the kids and of giving Boise a chance to meet the newest members of the community.

"The IRC is the only refugee resettlement organization in Boise with a youth program," said Albus. "I take care of the kids. I feel blessed."

Founded by none other than Dr. Albert Einstein, the International Rescue Committee operates in 42 countries, and helps find new homes for people displaced by violence. Boise is a prime resettlement location for refugees, and the IRC has resettled nearly 1,000 refugees into the community since the office opened in January 2006.

A multitude of supporters made the event possible, from the Southwest Idaho Mountain Biking Association, Sustainable Community Connections of Idaho, Failla Drums--which provided the beat at the after party--and Boise Fry Company.

Boise Bicycle Project even built many of the bikes and employed kids to work on them and learn skills prior to the ride.

As a bonus, the kids got to keep their bikes, which combined with their new skills and knowledge, will keep them peddling for years to come. As more refugees come to Boise, Rush and the volunteers will be there next summer to lead the kids on a week of riding that just might offer a new perspective on their new home and a welcome to the community. As the 2009 camp closed at Camel's Back Park, the kids played soccer with their new friends from different countries and went for one last ride together around the park.