Jasper Park camping trip brings refugees together from around the world

They began their journeys to Jasper National Park this week from all points on the compass — from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Liberia and South Sudan. Most are newcomers to Canada. The trip gave them a chance to meet people, practise English and to try out camping for the first time.

Orientation session that explains why Canadians choose to sleep outdoors, in a tent

First-time campers share cultures by fire light


5 years ago
A campfire in the Jasper mountains is a first for these newcomers to Canada, but it's not their first party. Watch them share their cultures through dance and song. 1:02

As the sun set behind the Rocky Mountains, the campers abandoned volleyball and soccer games to gather around the campfire.

Accompanied by guitar and bongo drums, a blend of voices sang in French, Swahili, Arabic and English.

Silhouetted in fire light, the former refugees danced in the traditional styles of their home countries.

These 50 people began their journeys to Jasper National Park this week from all points on the compass — from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Liberia and South Sudan.

Most are newcomers to Canada, and most have never been camping before.

The annual trip, now in it's sixth year, is called Learning To Camp.

Many of the campers have lived in Edmonton for less than six months. The trip gave them a chance to meet people, practise English and to try out camping for the first time.

Alexis Mbonyincungu, 26, fled the Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda in 2011 and eventually ended up in Kenya. He lived through a conflict nicknamed "Africa's World War," which killed six million and displaced two million over a five year span.

Canadian newcomer tries first campfire hot dog


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Pharat Rajput, of Pakistan, tries a hot dog for the first time while attending camp for newcomers and refugees. Reviews of the camping staple were mixed. 0:30

"I didn't have the liberty to live, or the right to study to get a job, because every time there was a war," said Mbonyincungu. "They shoot people. People are dying in the street. Women, children and old men walking many kilometres with their food for fear of the war."

This week, the only intruder he came across was a deer. Mbonyincungu has been in Canada for five months, and this was his first time experiencing the Canadian outdoors.

"I was thinking sleeping in the forest would not be easy," he said. "But when I reached here, I felt comfortable."

Catholic Social Services selected the campers, and brought plenty of food. Camping equipment was supplied free of charge by Mountain Equipment Co-Op. The large, private campsite was provided by Parks Canada.

Making a campfire was new for many of the campers, as were traditional North American staples such as hot dogs. Many are Muslim, so halal hot dogs were provided.

Pharat Rajput, who came from Pakistan, asked what condiments were best to add, then tried a hot dog for the first time.

The campers were eager to learn about Canada. They wanted to experience the outdoors, and understand why Canadians actually want to spend their weekends sleeping in a tent, in a forest, where bears are known to roam.

Izdhar Giab had never cooked on a propane camping stove before. After six  years in Canada, she had never been camping. Originally from Iraq, she cooked a traditional Iraqi meal for more than 50 people at the campsite. The smells of Middle Eastern spices, stews and rice may not be common Canadian camping food, but at the camp those dishes disappeared quickly.

Cooking Iraqi food in the Rocky Mountains


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Izdhar Giab cooks Iraqi food on propane camping stoves for a large group of refugees in Jasper . It's her first time camping in Canada after arriving 6 years ago. 1:26

For many, the singalong was the highlight of the trip. All were included and encouraged to take part, which seemed to mean lot to people who struggle every day to find a balance between adapting to Canadian culture and sharing their own.

Friendships were made among newcomers from different countries, people who face similar struggles while adapting to their new home in Canada.

Frank Bessai of Catholic Social Services led the excursion and explained the thinking behind it.

"It's really important for people who are resettling as refugees in our country," he said. "They find our country very strange, because we don't know who our neighbours are, what their names are, and what they do. In their cultures, everybody knows everybody on the street."

For most of the campers, sleeping in a tent in the middle of nowhere wasn't a tempting idea. But they warmed up to it.

"We have to lead them through an orientation process that explains why we choose to sleep outdoors in a tent, and how that's a recreational thing as opposed to something that is out of necessity," said Bessai.

Throw me a paddle: Newcomers take to water


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A group of 50 refugees and newcomers to Canada try voyageur canoeing and standup paddle boarding on Lake Edith. Many of them can't swim, but overcame their nerves to give it a try. 1:00

The trip was also intended help with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of the campers have experienced violence and fear, or lived constantly on the run. One family from Syria lost a son. A man from Liberia spoke with a hushed voice; his throat and lungs were damaged during a poison gas attack.

"This kind of experience really allows them to open up, to relax, to breathe and to feel safe in a beautiful natural environment," Bessai said. "They're a little afraid of the elk and the bears."

The campers showed their courage when they reached Lake Edith. Many couldn't swim. Where they came from, swimming wasn't taught as a recreational skill. Almost all put on life jackets before they jumped into eight-person voyageur canoes. Some of the braver ones tried stand-up paddle boarding.

Jamilah Kanakree and her husband, and their two children, aged seven and 10, are refugees from Syria. In Damascus, they were caught in the middle of a civil war. They've only been in Canada five months. Kamakree said the trip gave them many new experiences.

"They (her children) want to try everything," she said. "Now they understand English and understand very well. I can now make a tent and can take it down, make a fire and chop wood."

She planned to bring her family again, now that they've learned new skills and gained an appreciation for camping.

Catholic Social Services will pair some of them up with host families to go camping in the future.

Many of the newcomers and refugees got the chance to paddle canoes for the first time. (Travis McEwan (CBC))