Moving forwards together – a coastal walk with Muslim Hikers and a refugee community


Saira joins Muslim Hikers and the refugee community of Napier Friends for a walk along the sea from Folkestone as part of Refugee Week

Late this June, I joined Muslim Hikers and the refugee community from Napier Friends for a walk along the sea from Folkestone as part of Refugee Week. A few weeks earlier more than 600 people drowned in the Mediterranean when the Adriana fishing trawler capsized; many of those onboard were seeking asylum. I wanted to show my support for the refugee community by attending the led walk.

On the day, I took the train to Folkestone and walked up to the meeting point outside the hotel where a group of young men were gathered. As I arrived, Zahra came over to welcome me. She introduced me to Haroon and others in the group. I’d been wanting to join Haroon (Muslim Hikers founder) and Zahra (Muslim Hikers team member and Slow Ways contributor) on a walk for a while.

Many had undertaken risky journeys, by foot and boat, from different corners of the world including Iran, Sudan, Syria, Mauritania, and Kurdistan

We set off promptly on a circular walk along the sea, past the harbour, Sunny Sands beach and into Warren Country Park. It was a hazy bright day. Most of the men were around about my age, or a bit younger. They were staying at the Napier Barracks in Folkestone, former military barracks currently being used to house those seeking asylum. Many had undertaken risky journeys from all over the world from Iran to Kurdistan. As we walked, we spoke to each other. One man I spoke to, a developer in Iran who was in exile, told me how difficult things were for him. I nodded along, but my responses felt empty, unwise, flat. He told me that he didn’t want to leave home but had no choice. A fading optimism and stoic resignation permeated; but also hope.

Over the years, I have developed close friendships with individuals who have sought refuge in the UK. I’ve heard first-hand accounts of the perilous journeys people have undertaken – leaving behind friends and families – fleeing persecution, conflict, and strife and risking their lives repeatedly with the hope that they will, eventually, arrive.

As we wandered by the channel that has claimed so many lives, I wondered what it must feel like for some of those who had made it to this side. As we walk, an older man beside me gets a text; “Welcome to France!”    

The sun beamed down and there was a sense of camaraderie. We had a joyful afternoon together. We enjoyed a Turkish feast on a hilltop. I sat with the few women from the group. We spoke about our lives: one of the girls was from my area in London. The guys played cards and laughed. They embodied a sense of presence that comes from surviving, from understanding how transient and wildly precarious life is.

As we set off again down winding chalk paths, one man raced ahead. Others yelled jokes that sounded like battle cries from various high points. As we reached a beach some took off their shoes and let the waves lap over their feet.

Zahra and Haroon, and Victoria from Napier Friends facilitated the walk – their warmth, openness and good-humour enabled everyone to feel as ease throughout

Zahra and Haroon, and Victoria from Napier Friends facilitated a walk that created a safe space for strangers to walk together, to connect with the beautiful natural landscapes and with each other. To escape, for a short while, the mammoth task that stands before them.

We arrived back in Folkestone to say goodbye. I thanked Haroon and Zahra for inviting me to the walk, and my heart hurt as I watched the group head back towards the barracks. I went to the beach and got an ice cream and looked out at the sea. I felt grateful for all of my freedoms and was reminded of the things I so often take for granted, the right to work, to be able to see my family and friends with ease. So many of those who settle on our shores gain asylum after extremely hard-won battles. Many of my friends who began their journeys as asylum seekers, have carved out new lives, they contribute to the lives of others.

To bring people together, to create safe spaces, to facilitate dialogue and connection, to enable people access to nature and to landscape – is no small feat

In the face of the world’s innumerable and growing problems, to bring people together, to create safe spaces, to facilitate dialogue and connection, to enable people access to nature and to landscape – is no small feat. The work Muslim Hikers and other grassroots community groups do is so important and valuable. Walks with strangers give us insight into the lives of those around us. It gives us an opportunity to challenge our existing preconceptions and to learn through listening. Listening with an open heart goes a long way in making people feel seen – and to feel accepted. Walking and community building can go hand in hand in creating bridges and opening channels for communication. Everyone should have an opportunity to walk together…

Napier Friends – Napier Friends help people seeking asylum to settle into their local community and their new lives in the UK

Muslim Hikers – The largest community in the world for Muslims interested in the outdoors

Jo Cox Foundation – The Jo Cox Foundation makes meaningful change on issues that the late Jo Cox MP was passionate about

This walk was facilitated by Muslim Hikers in partnership with Napier Friends and the Jo Cox foundation as part of refugee week. Interesed in going along to a led walk? Click here to view and book onto an upcoming led Slow Ways walk.

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Saira Niazi
For as long as she can remember, Saira's loved wandering around, discovering new places, talking to strangers and recording her adventures. When she was in school she would often bunk off and end up exploring markets, museums, city streets and suburbs. She leads wandering tours, writes, and is Slow Ways' Community Story Lead.