Supporting refugee women in building resilience
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hikers climb a steep path
RUN Hong Kong supports vulnerable refugees, particularly women, to build resilience and nurture self-reliance for a more hopeful future, by tailoring their programmes to women’s specific needs.

"The first time I went out with RUN, I didn’t want to hike. I wanted to turn back. I was shouting at Virginie," Emily* laughs. Emily is a refugee from Cameroon. While she had escaped the dangers of her home country, her new life in Hong Kong was quite limited. Hong Kong is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, so refugees cannot resettle here permanently and there is very little support while they wait (sometimes years) for their protection claims to be processed. With few options, Emily lived a confined life between home and church.

In 2015, she was referred to join a group hike with other women refugees. Having never done much exercise before, she was not excited about the opportunity, but went along anyway. What started as a hike led by Virginie Goethals, became RUN Hong Kong, a nonprofit that supports vulnerable refugees, particularly women, to build resilience and nurture self-reliance for a more hopeful future. With sport as the springboard and education as the foundation, RUN helps refugees to create a life of safety and dignity, in Hong Kong and beyond.

Since its founding six years ago, RUN has supported dozens of women refugees like Emily to rehabilitate from past trauma, improve physical and mental strength, and build resilience through its sports programme. RUN participants have fled from some of the world’s most serious conflicts. Over 70% of the participants have suffered horrendous human rights abuses, including torture, rape, physical and mental abuse, or a combination of these. Many suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, hyper vigilance, or similar conditions. Additionally, more than 70% of RUN's adult participants are women, which means that many of them face many barriers to participating in sports, such as religion, culture, past experience of sexual violence, cost of transportation and duties associated with childcare.

Tailoring to women’s needs

While studies show the benefits of exercise and spending time outdoors in overcoming trauma and fighting depression, the team knew that ensuring that women refugees were meaningfully included and able to reap those benefits would mean that the programmes would have to be tailored to the needs of women.

First, although the organisation has expanded to include men and children, a weekly sports programme (a combination of hiking, swimming, and self-defence) is dedicated to women only. The creation of this safe, women-only space is especially important as 65% of RUN's women participants are survivors of sexual violence. Each sport activity is led by staff and volunteers who are trauma-informed and sensitive to the specific needs and backgrounds of the participants.

Second, RUN offers childcare and babysitting stipends during all of its programmes. This is especially significant because 49% of RUN's women participants are alone in Hong Kong or alone with children. Without childcare, the women would simply be unable to reliably attend any of RUN's programmes. Additionally, by offering childcare, the RUN team is able to identify challenges at home and provide support to the whole family.

Third, RUN's sports programme is supported by its Health & Essential Services, providing access to basic needs such as food, housing and healthcare. While sports can have a huge impact on mental and physical health, it's not enough. It must also be accompanied by a nutritious diet, adequate healthcare and psychological support, and having basic needs met. RUN's holistic approach ensures that participants can take full advantage of the benefits of sports and focus on their healing journeys.

Hiking through the pandemic

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, RUN was forced to suspend its weekly large group hikes due to social distancing restrictions. However, several of RUN's women participants such as Tina*, a refugee from India, volunteered to lead self-organised small group hikes so that they could continue. "This time spent hiking is time for myself and my group members to relax our minds, spend time outside, and do some exercise," she says. "Regardless of my personal responsibilities (managing my home life) and those responsibilities of my group members, I feel proud that I can be the driver of ensuring my group members take the time to take care of themselves. Through this, not only have I felt stronger physically by improving my hiking endurance, but I have also built a very strong bond with my friends."

The women's resilience and initiative during the pandemic is directly connected to the impact sports has had on their lives. After participating in RUN's programmes, 100% of participants report feeling physically and mentally stronger, 83% report higher confidence, and 72% say that they are much better able to socialise and make friends.

For RUN, sports is the first step in the journey to a more hopeful future. Once physically and mentally stronger, RUN supports its participants to nurture self-reliance through skills development, preparation for re-entry into the workforce and access to work opportunities. Where possible, RUN also helps to prepare its participants for and facilitate pathways to a new life of safety and dignity beyond Hong Kong through community sponsored resettlement.

In spite of Emily's initial aversion to hiking, she is now an avid hiker and runner and has completed multiple races in Hong Kong. She also learned to swim through RUN and often goes out swimming on her own. In addition to her athletic accomplishments, Emily has also trained to become a certified caregiver and volunteers taking care of residents at a local elderly care home.

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of RUN participants


sportanddev published this content as part of our partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. For more information on using sport in work with refugees please visit the UNHCR website.


Hong Kong SAR China
Sustainable Development Goals
5 - Gender equality
10 – Reduced inequalities
3 – Good health and well-being
Target Group
Girls and women
Displaced people

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