My name is Shane Mulligan, and I am student advocate with the Refugee Well-being Project. I am also an avid slackliner and highliner, putting me in a unique position to lead another grassroots Crossing Lines project in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The Refugee Well-being Project is a refugee advocacy program utilizing undergraduate students at the University of New Mexico. Each student advocate is paired with a refugee family that has recently resettled into the United States, and throughout the semester the pair work together to address unmet needs, make meaningful contributions to the community, and embrace diverse strengths and interests through cultural exchange. It is currently the only program of its kind in the United States.

Every week, the program hosts a ‘Learning Circle’, where advocates and families come together to make connections in various ways. Amongst refugees from Rwanda, Burundi, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Afghanistan, and a number of other countries, the Learning Circles begin with group discussions focusing on different challenges of being a refugee in the United States. This time is also reserved to welcome local organizations and figures to speak about resources they are connected to that may be of interest to refugees. Additionally, these activities stimulate cultural exchange between locals and refugees regarding topics like traditions, social norms, family values, and more.

Once a year, the weekly Learning Circle is held outside and on campus at UNM’s Duck Pond. The focus is redirected towards other vital components of resettlement, such as play, social integration, and active engagement in the community. Aware of my hobby, the coordinators welcomed me to set up a slackline at the pond, and I was thrilled with the opportunity to finally organize a collaborative project with Crossing Lines.

The day of the Learning Circle was a warm and sunny New Mexican evening, a refreshing window of good weather after a week of bitter desert winds. While setting up the tree protection, the kids were puzzled and intrigued by all of the ropes, hardware, and webbing resting near the anchor. In the days before, I was a little nervous the kids wouldn’t be drawn to the slackline as much as I hoped. I was quickly proven wrong, having to peel kids off the webbing before I even had the line fully tensioned.

The slackline was an immediate hit, as if the last pull of tensioning was a bell ringing play time into session. I was quickly caught in a buzz of helping wobbly-legged children with their first attempts across. First came the ambitious kids, some making it all the way across first try, others bouncing on the webbing without hesitation and quite unconcerned with walking. The wary, yet interested kids stood nearby, eventually finding their place in line not able to fend off their curiosity any longer.

Over the next hours, more families, volunteers, and student advocates trickled into the session amassing a familiar crowd of faces. A group of local slackliners had another line rigged on some nearby trees, and soon enough they too were swarmed by kids bursting with stoke to have another try. Surrounding the lines were groups of people singing and playing music, sharing food, and enjoying the evening in the peaceful cove of the duck pond. A group of kids even got ahold of a spare rope I left out and took it as an opportunity to spark up an impressive jump roping session.

It seemed as though the playful and lighthearted nature of the slackline spread around a relaxing energy, creating an open space for unhinged fun and expression. Even when you’re unsure if you can balance on the line, by the time you’ve given it a few solid tries you’ve had so much fun that “if” you can do it doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore. Afterwards, you might be willing to give that drum a try even though you think you can’t keep much of a beat, or join in on a song you don’t quite know the words to yet just to embrace the fun of singing along. Maybe the next day you’ll carry the same attitude into the classroom and find out those math problems just needed a little more patience and couple more tries.

Slacklining is a confidence building sport which reminds you in tangible ways that taking time to learn from your failures will eventually lead to success. Try after try, you eventually work out all the kinks and get a glimpse of what stability looks like. In time, that hazy glimpse can transform into a clear vision.

Applying that same playful and lighthearted approach to everything you do allows you to explore different parts of yourself that can open doors to opportunity and personal growth. Refugees are expected to make drastic changes to adhere to the social and economic expectations imposed by the countries welcoming them, and often the culture, skills, and experiences from their home countries do not hold equivalent value in their new environments. Remaining open to all of the ways in which you are diverse, powerful, and capable is an important practice for refugees in maintaining and developing their personal identity. You can’t always teach someone, but you can always help them discover themselves.

Being forcibly displaced because of a well-founded fear of persecution for religious, racial, or political reasons does not mean you must surrender your humanity. Communities are important sources of strength, and I look forward to continue unifying the global family with Crossing Lines to build bridges, not walls.

– Shane Mulligan

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Slacklining is a confidence building sport which reminds you in tangible ways that taking time to learn from your failures will eventually lead to success.

Photography by Kerr Adams. @kerr_adams