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Refugee Teens Learn San Diego Culture By Playing Outdoors

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Iraqi teens learning about San Diego outdoor lifestyle.

A day at the beach is more than just a routine jaunt for a group of teenage refugees from El Cajon Valley High School.

A day at the beach is a standard San Diego outing, but not for this group of 80 teenagers from El Cajon Valley High School. These are survivors. All of them are refugee immigrants who came to San Diego County less than three years ago. Most are from Iraq. Many can't even swim.

El Cajon Valley High School teamed up with the nonprofit Outdoor Outreach to give these teens a chance to play in the water. On this day they were learning how to kayak and paddleboard. The secret to success, according to 15-year-old Mustafa Mustafa, is to, “keep doing it and keep falling — you're going to learn.”

Ben McCue, executive director of Outdoor Outreach, thinks teaching the teens these water skills is key to helping them adapt to San Diego.

“I think it goes to the core of our identity as San Diegans," he said, "our connection to the outdoors.“

McCue talked about how different it can be for these kids to be outside.

“A lot of these kids come from an area where the outdoors is inherently dangerous," he said. "They were told to stay inside. This is an eye-opening experience for them.”

Being outside is something most San Diegans don't think twice about.

“I do take the beach for granted," said Erin Richison, principal at El Cajon Valley High School. "You know, going to the beach, going on boats, swimming, was just natural to me.”

It takes time, but eventually the teens open up and share their stories. Eevil Dwmka, 17, talked about life in Iraq.

“In Iraq there is bombs," he said. "You see people dying every day.”

Eevil has vivid memories of fleeing Baghdad with his family. They traveled to Mosul, then to Turkey and eventually he, his parents, and brothers landed in El Cajon.

El Cajon has one of the country's largest Iraqi immigrant populations. It’s a tight-knit community. Outdoor Outreach sees introducing the teens to outdoor activities as a way of introducing them to San Diego culture.

“It's really our job as San Diegans who love the outdoors to share that passion and love with the rest of our community because it has a tremendous impact,” McCue said.

He hopes that through these outdoor activities these young people can feel more at home in their new city.

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