Sunday, September 15, 2019

Kids being kids

A group of refugee kids discover outdoor fun in Crested Butte

by Alissa Johnson

As part of her work with the United Nations refugee agency (the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR), Devon Cone has spent a lot of time in refugee camps and urban areas in Kenya, Egypt, Uganda and Lebanon over the last eight years. One of her main responsibilities has been identifying and interviewing people at risk and experiencing violence with the goal of persuading governments like the United States—which accepts 80,000 refugees every year—to accept the most vulnerable through resettlement.

Among them are unaccompanied minors—kids under the age of 18 who fled their countries alone and are at risk of or are experiencing trafficking, kidnapping, beatings and torture. It’s not hard to imagine that it’s a rewarding job but also one that takes its toll.

Between assignments, Cone has come to Crested Butte to rest and recharge. She started coming here as a teenager in 1996, and in 1999 her family built a house on Red Mountain. She never imagined that her career and her love for Crested Butte would come together, but over President’s Day weekend, a group of resettled unaccompanied minors made the trip from Colorado Springs. They stayed in her family’s home and discovered something new: the beauty of the mountains and the fun of outdoor recreation.

As often happens when people discover Crested Butte, the trip came about through chance encounters. Last September, the Piper Gallery at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts featured Cone’s photography—images she’d captured of the refugee experience. Her distant cousin, Chris Duval, came to see the show with his wife. He grew up in Crested Butte and now teaches ESL (English as a second language) in Colorado Springs. Many of his students are resettled unaccompanied minors.

“My cousin was talking about how these students live in Colorado Springs with foster families and don’t have any ability to recreate. Some are involved in sports, but they have limited money, they’re ward of the state, and live near the outdoors but don’t get outdoors,” Cone said.

The idea was born: bring a group of these students to Crested Butte for a weekend of outdoor recreation. Many donations made the weekend possible. The Last Steep and the Secret Stash each donated a dinner. Crested Butte Nordic provided trail passes, Nordic equipment and snow shoes. Five volunteers chaperoned the group and the Pike’s Peak chapter of the Colorado Mountain Club covered other expenses.

On Friday evening, 11 teenagers ranging in age from 14 to 18 arrived in Crested Butte—though Cone says their ages are guesses at best. Many unaccompanied minors don’t know how old they are and don’t have paperwork to confirm their age.

When Cone herself conducted interviews with unaccompanied minors, she estimated their ages “based on what they think and events surrounding their childhood and what’s going on in their countries. They all have birth dates of January 1 because that’s the date we put when we don’t know.”

These kids had been in the United States between three months and three years. They came from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Guatemala. Many of them spoke limited English, and while they’ve found a new start in the United States, they are still overcoming the challenges of learning a new culture.

“They’re integrated into high school or trying to be, but they sure feel pretty alone here in the United States. It’s everyone’s golden ticket to get resettled. In my world it’s a check, it’s done. They’re going somewhere safe. But it’s a whole new start and it’s hard,” Cone says.

In Crested Butte, the kids experienced a reprieve from those challenges. On Saturday, they skied out to the Magic Meadows Yurt, and on Sunday they snowshoed around Red Mountain. They even played basketball with several locals at the high school gym, and for once, the kids just got to be kids.

That meant lots of falling on the Nordic trails, combined with a lot of laughter. As they got more comfortable on skis, it meant seeking out hills, skiing down, hiking back to the top, and skiing down again.

“When they got to the yurt, they were all having snowball fights and rolling around together in the snow. That was the kind of interaction I noticed the most. A lot of laughter, and a lot of carefree-ness when their lives aren’t really carefree at all,” Cone said.

The kids’ reflections on the weekend echo Cone’s observations.

A teenage girl who fled her war-torn country in Africa said, “I been through so many hard things. You cannot even imagine. I like it here so much. Crested Butte so, so good. I feel good and it is nice to laugh and be outside. This weekend I will never forget in my whole life.”

One of the teenage boys who fled the war in his country said, “These days are some of the first days that I feel happy in a really long time. So much fun to ski and so beautiful here. The people here are so nice. I feel safe and good. Can I come back to Crested Butte?”

Cone hopes the boy will have that chance. The weekend was such a success that plans are in the works for a second visit this summer and hopefully to offer a biannual trip for unaccompanied minors. It’s a rewarding and meaningful idea for Cone.

“I have interviewed thousands of refugees in situations where they are experiencing torture, abuse, sexual violence and other protection issues as they try to survive. I have written thousands of cases trying to convince the U.S. government to accept these people on humanitarian grounds,” Cone said.

“To see kids like the ones I have interviewed, finally in the United States, living with families and going to high school is awe-inspiring for me. I have spent time in a lot of fascinating places, but Crested Butte holds a special place for me. It is a place I have come to in between my assignments to recharge and feel safe. To be able to share this place that has provided me with so much happiness and healing with these kids, who have been through so much, is incredibly meaningful.”

To learn more about the refugee crisis, attend this summer’s Public Policy Forum on August 3, at which Cone will be a featured speaker.

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