Changing lives on and off the track

Hong Kong, 15 Jun 2016

Every Thursday night Jodie Chan runs alongside refugees supported by non-profit Free to Run. She turns up regularly because she is committed to improving the lives of refugees in Hong Kong who have suffered conflict and persecution.

“The refugees we run with have often fled from their home countries and many are in limbo because they cannot legally work or get a residency visa for three, five or even 10 years. Often they live in isolation and this activity gets them out and amongst other people,” Chan explains.

Macquarie staff member Chan has been a volunteer with Free to Run since it was established in Hong Kong in mid-2015. Along with a handful of other Macquarie volunteers, she usually runs side-by-side with one or two Free to Run participants in a weekly mixed-gender running track session, which up to 30 refugees attend.

Free to Run also runs a hiking program for refugee women in Hong Kong.

“A friend connected me to Free to Run through their local partner, The Justice Centre, which Macquarie also supports,” says Chan. “They operate in several countries, including Afghanistan, but came to Hong Kong because the need is definitely here with around 10,000 refugees living in the city.”

“There are around 45 participants in Free to Run’s hiking or running groups but many more are on the waiting list. The refugees are mainly from Africa with some from South Asia and the Middle East.”

Free to Run - founded by Stephanie Case, a human rights lawyer for the United Nations - uses running, physical fitness and outdoor adventure to overcome gender, religious and ethnic discrimination among women and girls from conflict-affected communities.

Free to Run’s Hong Kong Director, Virginie Goethals, believes that everyone is the same when they are running: “Your past doesn't count. Your country doesn't count. You're just there in the moment – running with everyone else. Running forces people to look ahead and Free to Run participants get to the point where they are ready to look at life in the eyes again.”

Over the past year Macquarie staff have participated in three competitive races with Free to Run participants as team mates, including the Macquarie sponsored Peak24 corporate relay race in early 2016 involving more than 38 teams and 200 runners.

“We are all equal on the track, sweating it out and laughing together in a positive and fun environment,” Chan says. “The refugees work so hard. A few of them have won medals and prizes in the races, but at the start some of them could not even run 200 metres. Now they are running 21-kilometre trail races on some of Hong Kong’s toughest courses.”

“When we run with them we are keeping them company, pacing them or giving them some friendly competition. We have seen and experienced first-hand the incredibly positive physical and psychological impact this program has had. It has changed the participants’ lives and given them hope and motivation to achieve their own goals off the track.”

Macquarie staff have also raised over $HK250,000 through various fundraising activities and collected clothes and toiletries for Free to Run participants.

“I have struck up great friendships with the refugees. You can’t help but be emotionally invested and they are just as much an inspiration to us,” says Chan.

Image caption: Free to Run participants after a training session.