Free to Run's Refugee Program - Hiking, Running and So Much More

In the summer of 2015, Free to Run created a hiking programme for refugees of war and conflict who landed in Hong Kong. The city is now the home to several thousand refugees who often live in deplorable conditions because they are not allowed to work. Their situation can lead to social isolation and desperation. Fitness activities are some of the only opportunities that refugees have to re-develop their mental and physical strength. Katy Dartford spoke to Free to Run Board Member and Refugee Programme Manager, Virginie Goethals, about how hiking and track training is improving the quality of life for some of the refugees.  

“Unlike most developed countries, Hong Kong has not signed the UN refugee convention,” explains Virginie Goethals. “Whilst Hong Kong does recognise a very limited number of refugees, and they provide short term protection… refugees are not allowed to work, volunteer or even study online, so they are basically just kept alive.”  

There are approximately 11,000 people waiting for their claim to be recognised, which can take between 3-6 years and in the first instance the rejection rate is almost 99 per cent. The refugees are from Africa including the countries of Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, Egypt and Rwanda. Some are also coming from South East Asia. Whilst they wait for their claim to be assessed, they live off food coupons worth 4 US dollars plus an allowance of 160 US dollars a month for rent.  

“Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world,” says Virginie, “so this money only allows them to put a mattress down somewhere. This low level of assistance forces refugees into poverty. Most are torture survivors and their new circumstances exacerbates the trauma even more. With very limited psychological support available, the idea is that by taking them hiking we help them to recover their physical and mental strength.”

The programme has a focus on women as they are particularly vulnerable and often subject to exploitation and abuse. Currently there are 43 participants, of which two thirds are women, “but when you take on one refugee, you take on the whole family… you can’t just help one person,” says Virginie.

The hikes take place every Tuesday and the goal is to help the refugees get stronger, both mentally and physically. Additionally, these activities help people to develop friendships and learn more about Hong Kong. There are fitness sessions every two weeks with about 25 people. “Hiking alone is not enough,” says Virginie, “refugees need to do basic fitness to reconnect with their bodies.” There are up to six volunteers who help out with the hiking sessions - an important part of helping refugees integrate. “Hong Kong has a very negative attitude towards refugees. There is no distinction between them and migrants, as the media blurs the differences,” says Virginie. “So having volunteers from Hong Kong is very important because they can help us to put a well-needed spotlight on the situation.”

Because the refugees can be very vulnerable, it’s not possible to just turn up and volunteer. “We have to select volunteers very carefully because of the numerous issues we encounter. We’re so fortunate to work with some amazing volunteers right now. We have a life coach, and two weeks ago we hosted a great talk about healthcare. In the near future, we may need some fitness experts and people who can provide advice about lifestyle and nutrition. Next year we will focus on communication and children's education. If people are interested in sharing their expertise they are welcome to contact us,” says Virginie.

The team at Joint Dynamics donated physiotherapy treatments to several Free to Run program participants.

There is also a track running programme for a mixed group of up to 35 people. “These refugees are a little fitter, but most of the women started in the hiking group and then moved to running. Some are now taking part in races and are getting really strong. It’s amazing. They zoom past people, and they've never raced before! But the fact that they’re training by themselves makes me very proud, and it’s very inspiring to the other refugees. Racing is not the ultimate goal, but it’s a bonus and it provides visibility in Hong Kong. They wear a Free to Run tee-shirt and clearly feel proud that despite being refugees they can accomplish something.

Credit AFP

Last year two teams of five to six women completed a 30km team trail race with a fair amount of incline. “They never thought they could finish,” says Virginie, “so the happiness when they did gave them a lot of confidence in themselves."

“Right now we stay on Hong Kong Island as the refugees live all over the place and don't have money to travel, says Virginie, “usually we rent a bus and go around the trails. Sometimes we organise beach days with fitness, dance and yoga on the beach. Some of the women bring their families and many have never been in the ocean before. But they are jumping in the waves like children, screaming with joy. We have a few Muslim ladies and going into the water was a big step for them.”

So what’s next for the Free to Run programme in Hong Kong? “Well, there will be a Free to Run office opening soon!” says Virginie. It’s a working space in a warehouse which is a very big step as the refugees need a safe place to meet. We can provide childcare while people are hiking or running. Some refugees have offered to make furniture for the office with recycled wood. We’re collecting yoga mats so if the weather is bad we can exercise there. There’s also a small kitchen and every week we will shop, and the refugees can cook a meal from own country for others to try.”

“We’re also in the process of launching a study and mentorship online programme. We have free places for around 15 people to study online via Coursera, using donated laptops. We still need approval from immigration for them to start, but many of the refugees in our program are motivated to improve their lives and think about the future.”

“So if anyone wants to help, the biggest need is for fundraising so we can provide teachers, childcare and psychological support that complements our sports programs. We’ve had a lot of support from the running community in Hong Kong as well as the business community. Companies like the Macquarie Group4 Deserts and RacingthePlanet. They’ve been amazing as have our volunteers who show up week after week to help.

It keeps you going even when it’s tough, because supporting people who are suffering from trauma is never easy. I'm a lawyer, but I'm learning a lot about trauma and it’s not an easy road. We have some people who are suicidal or very depressed, and then to see them show up week after week is a sign they we’re doing the right thing. Taking people on hikes or doing track training is not the solution to all of their problems, but it’s a powerful way to heal and find inspiration.”

Leah Anathan