Equality and Diversity Graduate, Courtney Riley, reflects on a recent visit to Loch Leven National Nature Reserve with a group of young Syrian refugees from Edinburgh who were brought by Backbone – a social enterprise. Scottish Natural Heritage supports one of Backbone’s latest projects, Nature Exploration, that provides outdoor opportunities to marginalised groups.
Right before I got out of my car to introduce myself to Backbone’s operations director, Pammy Johal, I became nervous. What if I said something wrong? I walked over to the minivans and Pammy welcomed me warmly. The young people had been split into two groups, girls and boys, so I chose to spend the day with the girls and entered the mini bus to the sound of loud Arabic pop music and a round of ‘hellos’. Twelve hands came rushing towards me offering me food and water and as the conversations carried on all the nerves disappeared.
We drove to Loch Leven National Nature Reserve where we each were given a set of binoculars. I played the part of the responsible adult by helping the girls focus the binoculars – but I admit I did join them in looking through them backwards a couple of times! We followed the SNH ranger, Neil Mitchell, and an RSPB representative along a trail to the beach where we tried spotting different types of birds on the loch.
There were many dogs running on the beach and it became apparent just how terrified the girls were of them as they screamed and ran away. I asked the group’s chaperone (a former Syrian TV presenter) why this was and she explained that in Syria dogs are not domesticated and children are taught to run from them. After the beach, we walked to the ponds where we dropped nets into the water and tipped out the contents into trays so that Neil could explain the types of fish and plants we found.
As we headed back to the minivan, the girls told me that they wanted to become lawyers, doctors, firefighters and Olympians. They told me of their experiences at school and how hard their parents work. It amazed me how aware they were of such ‘grown up’ topics – compared to my 10-year-old self playing Super Mario Bros on my Nintendo!
At lunch, the RSPB representative brought her dog to meet the children as she had described him as calm and good-natured. When Thomas the Spaniel arrived, some of the children became curious enough to come near him. By the end of lunch, they were queuing to hold the dog’s lead and to take photos while hugging him.
After lunch, we went into the forest for a nature trail treasure hunt. We heard the rich history of Loch Leven castle on the island in the middle of the loch, and we found birds’ nests, animals and the house where Justin Bieber once stayed (not Loch Leven castle as some of the girls misheard!).
I felt a mix of overwhelmingly happy and sad as the minivans were being packed up. We said goodbye and I wished every one of them all the luck and happiness in the world – hoping they would all become lawyers, doctors, firefighters and Olympians.
The visit allowed me to see the direct impact of the work SNH supports and experience how being in nature can completely change how people think and feel. It was an experience that will stay with me and I hope it has left an impact on the young people – even if it is as small as being more likely to cuddle a dog.
All images © Courtney Riley/SNH