For as long as I can remember, many of my big life decisions have been made in risk-taking, less than logical, adventurous ways. As soon as I started to feel any semblance of stability in my life, in terms of holding a steady job or a balanced social life, a tingling feeling in my gut would always creep up. This physical sensation was simply letting me know that it was time to move on, continue pushing my personal boundaries, and embark on some new high-wattage adventure that would change my life forever.
These impulsive, adventure-driven life decisions have brought me all over the world: from living in Tokyo for five years to relocating to Paris, which I have called ‘home’ for almost three years.
So, following this recurring adventure-seeking life trajectory I set for myself, and right after getting married last September, the idea of Run to Reach was born. Having already been an avid runner and marathoner, I came up with the crazy idea to run 30 marathons in 30 countries before I turn 30 (in June 2020).
To provide a bit of context, running marathons in different countries became the lens through which I experienced the world and connected with like-minded people. The act of running a full marathon is such a test of pushing one’s own physical boundaries to its limits. And experiencing this type of strenuous activity – which requires a considerable amount of introspective, soul-searching – in a foreign country made my connection to that culture and its people much deeper. I will never forget just how surreal it felt running through thousand-year-old pagodas during the marathon in Bagan, Myanmar. Or, witnessing a peaceful demonstration that took place during the marathon in Beirut, Lebanon in light of the current political situation.
In this way, my love for running in different countries over new terrains undoubtedly has contributed so much to my journey of personal development and self-discovery. Yet, how could I in return leave a positive, social impact on all of the countries I was running in, equal to their effect on me? My Run to Reach project quickly became about much more than my completion of a personal goal before a pivotal birthday.
More importantly, it is about using the power of running to inspire and evoke change throughout 30 countries, supporting and fundraising for one local NGO in each country visited.
The organizational process of my Run to Reach campaign was surprisingly much more complex than originally anticipated. Choosing all of the different marathons was easy, but selecting each of the 20 partner organizations proved to be more challenging. Where does one begin when selecting 20 local non-profit organizations in countries they are completely unfamiliar with? This task seemed daunting with the thousands of non-profits to choose from.
In the end, I made it my priority to select 20 organizations that I felt a strong emotional connection to, that demonstrated a considerable amount of transparency, and represented sustainable development in all of their actions.
Taking note of “effectiveness” rankings on the GiveWell website, an independent charity evaluator, these organizations were chosen to fit Run to Reach’s model of empowering local communities. Within this theme, the partner organizations of Run to Reach work to tackle crucial issues that appear frequently around the world by doing the following: elevating and recognizing the power of untold stories, empowering women to define their own identities, and pushing boundaries to show individuals they have the capacity to evoke change.
Since the start of the project in January, I have now had the opportunity to work directly with six different organizations, each experience being so different from the other. My 12th marathon brought me to Western Sahara and a part of the world and conflict I was completely unaware of before this race. The Sahara marathon took place at a refugee camp, home to over 170,000 Saharawi refugees who had been forcibly kicked out of their land by Moroccan forces in the late 1970s. It has now been 43 years that they continue to live in a complete state of limbo, with no foreseeable change in sight to the status of their living situation. It is one of the oldest recorded refugee camps still in existence today.
For 10 days, I had the opportunity to live with one of these refugee families in their home. Of course, seeing the situation in which the Sahawaris live it is so easy to focus on how little they have. They live day-to-day on UN-rationed food. Each family is given one 5-by-5 meter water balloon per week as their main source of clean water. Only last year, my host family saved enough money to install electrical units in their home. Yet I was profoundly taken by just how rich and whole their lives seemed to be. They were connected to each other, their families, their neighbors in ways that I’ve never seen before.
I felt incredibly grateful to be in their home, to be eating the food that they cooked for me and, as a result, I found myself thanking them almost every other sentence. “Thank you, thank you, thank you” for everything that my Saharawi host family was doing for me, teaching me, sharing with me. After the third day, my host sister, Fatimatu, turned to me almost with a stern face and said “please stop thanking us. This is your home and this is just what you do for family.”
Fatimatu also shared with me that she was planning on getting married this year and so I offered to leave her all of the money I had left with me to use for her wedding. She expressed so much gratitude but humbly rejected my offer. Her reason? Since her wedding was a few months away, if any of her neighbors were going through a time where they needed money she would be obliged to give it to them because this is how their culture operates. You take care of each other and you always give selflessly. She said that she would feel terrible accepting my money knowing that it might not be used for her wedding down the line.
These are people who literally have nothing: no jobs and no material belongings, of course. They don’t even have any sort of clear future in sight. But they thrive and continue to survive because of the deep connections they share with each other.
Ahead of the Sahara Marathon, I partnered with Sandblast Arts, a UK-based organization that works to amplify both the voices and visions of the indigenous Saharawi people of Western Sahara. Run to Reach is directly supporting the Stave House Project, an early learning music and English language program for primary school students in the camps.
So far, more than 50 children have participated in the program and three local Saharawi teachers have been trained to teach at Stave House. I saw first-hand the incredible impact Stave House is having on the lives of these Saharawi children, injecting life, creativity, and inspiration into their daily routine. By this time next year, the Stave House project will be a completely self-sustaining program, with the locally-trained teachers taking over management.
Fast forward three months, when I found myself in rural Sierra Leone ahead of marathon 16. Though this marathon is ranked as the eighth most difficult on the planet because of the 90-degree heat and 90% humidity, the most memorable aspect of this experience was surely my partnership with Street Child. This is an incredible British organization whose work has expanded miles beyond its original purpose of offering educational opportunities to homeless and orphaned children. Now, Street Child builds schools, trains teachers – 700 so far – and provides micro-grants to women to start their own businesses across Sierra Leone, Nepal, and Afghanistan. More importantly, 92% of these children stay in school and 90% of businesses are sustained post-support.
During those few weeks in Sierra Leone, it was such a profound experience to again encounter and meet in person some of the beneficiaries of Street Child’s work. While exploring a local market next to our hotel, I was introduced to Mabel, a woman selling fish with a beaming smile that stretched the length of her stand. Her powerful energy and warmth were palpable, as strong as the sun that surrounded her. I later learned that following the Ebola crisis four years ago, Mabel found herself the sole carer of her four nieces and nephews after her sister, a nurse, passed away from the virus. With three children of her own, Mabel found herself struggling financially to support her large family and as a result, all of her children stopped going to school to help the family earn any small amount of money. With the help of a micro-grant and training from Street Child, Mabel was able to set up a sustainable business selling fish at a local market, the profits of which allow her to not only support her family but also send her children and her nieces and nephews to school.
Almost six months into my mission, I have now completed 16 marathons – with races taking me through the refugee camp in Western Sahara, up an active volcano in Guatemala, between turquoise lakes in Kyrgyzstan, and through the depths of the jungle in Sierra Leone. Although the marathon-running component of Run to Reach is of course physically demanding, what continues to be the most challenging is the fundraising and charity-awareness efforts in each country, switching from pouring my heart and soul into supporting a different NGO almost every two weeks. How can I create a compelling enough story about each country and organization? How can I inspire other people to care about these causes as much as I do?
While I still have another year ahead of me to complete all 30 marathons, the long-term vision of Run to Reach remains to be seen. But having come this far, I am excited about the unknown and seeing where this project and this global adventure takes me.