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Refugee Youth Lay Groundwork for Dallas Parks

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It’s 6 a.m. on a cold Saturday morning in December and Groundwork Dallas’ Trail Crew is already hard at work. They’ve been up since before 5 a.m., but they don’t mind. “I get up at 4:30. I like it. Seeing the sun rise every morning, it’s a good feeling,” said Saw Lay, one of Groundwork’s newest hires. On this day, he and his team are putting the final touches on Frasier Dam Recreation Area, a project that the Dallas nonprofit has been working on for the past eight years . Over the past few months, the trail crew has finished a mountain bike trail, a picnic area, and constructed a bridge. The Groundwork trail crew has been improving Dallas’ natural surroundings for fifteen years, but its current crew is different from previous crews: all four of the newest members are former refugees.

Thailand to Texas

The new members: Tala, Eh Kaw, Win Tin, and Saw Lay, have been friends since middle school. The group has a lot in common. Their families are all from eastern Burma, they grew up in refugee camps in Thailand, and all of them were resettled in the same neighborhood in Dallas. Though they have had similar journeys, what brought them together in their new homes wasn’t just their backgrounds, but a love of nature. 

Eh Kaw shows off a pumpkin he grew in a field not far from his apartment

Photo: Andrew Holzschuh

While the group never met in Thailand, they quickly forged a bond in Dallas’ backyard. Despite living in urban apartment complexes, they always found their way to nearby outdoor spaces. ”We went to school together” said Win Tin, “And that’s where it started. We’d hang out together, play sports, and go camping. That’s what we like to do and that’s why we’re still together. We really love each other.” After school and on weekends, they could be found exploring local creeks and forests. They honed their skills fishing with their hands, building shelters, and even planting pumpkins. By the time they were in high school, they were putting their talents to work. They spent summers as groundskeepers at youth outdoor camps, maintained trails on the Rocky Mountain Chainsaw Crew, and harvested crops in IRC’s New Roots’ gardens. 

Tala tries out repelling at his first trip to Big Bend Ranch State Park Photo: Groundwork Dallas

Joining the Green Team

In 2018, the IRC partnered with Groundwork Dallas. The organization's Green Team aims to provide students with ecological education, hands-on job training, and recreational opportunities. It was a perfect fit for the young outdoorsmen, and they jumped at the new opportunities to learn and explore. One of the first outings they attended was a trip to Big Bend Ranch State Park. “When we went to Big Bend, I thought that taking kids to experience something like that was really cool. I knew I wanted to be involved in that too,” said Tala. Over the next two years, Tala and his friends continued to sign up for whatever Groundwork had to offer.  From summer internships as Canopy Crew members to weekends at Trail Building School, the group was always eager to participate. “The way Groundwork cares for the youth really touched me, and that’s why I kept coming back” said Eh Kaw. 

A New Crew

The group’s hard work, dependability, and love of working in the outdoors spoke for itself. As a result, all four were offered full time positions as part of Groundwork’s Trail Crew. It’s more than just a job to them, it’s a commitment to bettering their community. “We live in polluted areas and it causes a lot of health problems. That’s why I want to help clean and inspire other people to work together and make our area better,” said Win Tin. As trail crew members, they work daily to improve the natural surroundings in Dallas and beyond.  Every day, they’re out working in places like Frasier Dam Recreation Area, Hines Park, or Bachman Lake. It is physically demanding work and the group is often up against Texas weather. “Even though I come home tired every day, I come knowing that I’ve done good work on the environment, '' said Tala. In addition to their work in Dallas, Groundwork has also helped the crew expand their horizons. In the past year they have worked in Big Bend State Ranch, Glacier National Park, and most recently in Tuskegee, Alabama, where they worked on the restoration of Booker T. Washington’s home.

Saw Lay, Tala, and Win Tin visit "Lifting the Veil of Ignorance," a statue of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University.

The four longtime friends couldn’t be happier about their unique opportunity to work together, travel, and make a difference in their community. “To work with someone you’ve known for a long time, not a lot of people get to do that. It’s a blessing,” said Saw Lay. While the four have been like brothers since they arrived in Dallas, they feel their family has grown since joining Groundwork. “They’ve become my family. It’s a new home to me,” Eh Kaw said. It’s one that he and his friends hope other community members will join, helping to make Dallas a cleaner, safer, and healthier environment.


Story by: Alex Laywell