As students start the school year and the weather begins to shift, I find myself reflecting on a season of change I got to share in with a group of refugee students.
I had the opportunity to work in tobacco prevention education with a group of students from the refugee population in Denver. My students, who called themselves the RISE Anti-Tobacco Youth Leadership Team, worked to inform their community about the risks of using tobacco products and to speak out against tobacco marketing.
As a group we represented Burma, Malaysia, Somalia, Thailand—and Wisconsin. I think we all learned more about friendship and about one another than I could teach them about tobacco. Together we journeyed through experiences that were new to the students—from learning how to bake cookies for the first time to exploring the mountains of Colorado.
Before the RISE Anti-Tobacco group started, many of these students did not often interact with one another. The community is made up of many different cultures, and families are constantly transitioning in and out as they relocate to Denver and find jobs. This program provided a way for the youth to meet other students their age, and to become friends with people whose culture differed from their own.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching the group bond with one another as their shyness slowly dissipated. We giggled hysterically together as we all squeezed into one tiny apartment kitchen, removed the appliances, pots and pans from the oven, and attempted to bake cookies on several small pizza sheets. (I made the wrongful assumption that their families, who do all of their cooking on the stove top or in rice makers, would own a cookie sheet.) Bollywood music videos were blaring in the background while we covered the kitchen in cookies. It took a brief explanation that butter and cheese, while both derived from milk, do not quite have the same function in baking. But otherwise they caught on to the process very quickly.
Our trip to Mt. Falcon Open Space Park provided another adventure. We piled into a 12-passenger van, and I drove up the winding roads to the trailhead. There we backpacked all of our food and water into the forest to enjoy a picnic lunch on the trail. We climbed rocks, smelled the vanilla-scented bark of the ponderosa pine, played in the snow, observed the springtime appearance of the pasqueflowers, and climbed to the top of a fire tower. We were on top of the world, where we could see the entire Denver metro area spread out before us. It gave them a neat perspective to look out over the city and toward the neighborhoods in which they spend almost all of their time. Throughout the hike, the students learned about environmental issues related to tobacco use including deforestation, pollution, litter and secondhand smoke.
My time with the RISE group has come to a close, but I hope that the friendships my students made in their community will continue. I hope that they felt empowered to make healthy decisions, and to know that what they have to say is important.
I will miss them, but at the same time, as we celebrate these now changing seasons, I still cherish my transformative experience with this incredible group of students moving into a new stage of life.
Audra DeVault holds a master’s of public health from the Colorado School of Public Health.
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