Brothers Payman Rajaie, left, and Maisam Rajaie, stand for a photo together outside their home on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood. | Alex Rogals

When Rasha Al Hasnawi came to the United States from Iraq, she braced for the long journey ahead. Al Hasnawi, a single mother, grappled with leaving her home country behind, which over time grew to become unfamiliar after the war broke out, but worried about the challenges she would soon face in a new place.

She needed to rebuild and find a job, a place to live and schools for her children. Al Hasnawi admitted that her experience as a refugee in the U.S. may have been a tad “easier than most” because she spoke English, but she was still afraid of the change.  

“I [didn’t] know if I was going to be accepted in a new community,” said Al Hasnawi, noting she and her children first traveled to Jordan before settling in Chicago in the mid- 2010s. This interview took place over Zoom with her teenage children, Lina and Muntadher, joining the call and peering from different screens.

Al Hasnawi said that through a resettlement agency she was able to pick up pieces of her life and create a sense of stability, and then she met Shana Wills. An Oak Park resident, Wills founded Refugee Education and Adventure Challenge (REACH), a nonprofit aimed to offer outdoor activities, experiential learning and other skills for children and teens who are refugees or asylum seekers.

“As a refugee mom,” Al Hasnawi said, “I felt REACH [was] a safe place for my kids to learn new things because I was learning about the community by myself as an adult, and I did not let them go by themselves outside unless I’m with them. When I reached Shana, and she explained to me the program, I loved it. I thought it’s a good environment for all the kids who aren’t from the United States [and] came here as refugees or immigrants.”

Even Al Hasnawi, who now serves on REACH’s board, remembered her first trip with the Oak Park-based organization where she learned to kayak.

“Oh my goodness,” she said, laughing. “I couldn’t feel my arms.”

It’s moments like those that Wills cherishes the most. Wills, who officially launched REACH in 2016 after decades of working with immigrant communities, said she saw a growing need to provide a safe space for families and especially, children and teens.

Drawing from her own experience, Wills said she often saw immigrant youth struggle to find their place in the U.S. for various reasons, including financial struggles, language barriers or racial discrimination, and some found solace in gangs.

“There wasn’t a system in place to really support these kids,” said Wills, who is also a part-time faculty member at DePaul University, about the lack of resources and support schools provided for children who are refugees and asylum seekers. “There were psychologists. There were social workers, but there was a disconnect between what they needed and what they were getting.”

Wills said the death of a close friend’s son in 2013 was what pushed her to draft a blueprint for REACH and ultimately open the program.

“His son was walking down the street on a Sunday morning up in Edgewater [Chicago’s North Side], and he was shot and killed,” said Wills, recalling another life lost to gang violence, and her friend’s and family’s plea to “Save our boys. We’re losing them.”  

From there, Wills tried to craft a platform with one specific goal in mind: She wanted to have a place for refugee youth and their families to feel welcome and have community.

And that rang true for Payman Rajaie. Payman, who came to Chicago with his brothers Maisam and Nuraga two years ago and are originally from Afghanistan, recalled his life back home.

“We didn’t do much except going swimming a couple of times,” said Payman, one of REACH’s youngest peer mentors. “It was still wartime – and it still is – and people were not in their comfort zone. People didn’t want to go to the amusement park or do something fun because they were kind of in fear. And, they are kind of also in fear now.”

Payman said when he and his brothers found REACH, their lives changed.

“Before joining REACH, life was [you] go to school, come back home, do your homework, and that was kind of it,” he said. “It was starting to get boring until we got introduced to REACH, and then, we joined. … We could see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Other peer mentors and participants, including Muntadher, Lina and Masooma Mohammadi, said REACH is a sanctuary, a source of relief and connection.

“With REACH being here, it feels like community, feels like home,” Mohammadi said. “It feels like people sharing stories, people coming together and being accepted and stuff like that. It’s a warm feeling.”

Muntadher added, “If you’re an immigrant and scared of the outdoors, scared of the world around you or the community [and] you don’t feel like you fit in, join us, and we’ll make sure you get over that fear. You’ll feel more comfortable with yourself, and you’ll get over your insecurities, and we’ll help you go and become the best version of yourself possible.”

Find out more

For more information on REACH,

Join the discussion on social media!