Sama Wareh, M.S – Southern California 2021 Environmental Educator of the Year
Note from AEOE’s Executive Director: Sama and I had a chance to connect over the phone, where I learned more about her story – what brought her into this field and what has sustained her. What follows are the notes from our conversation. Please join me in celebrating Sama’s contributions to the field of environmental and outdoor education and the many lives she’s impacted over the year.
For us (practicing Muslims), environmental stewardship is supposed to be a part of our religion. When I started 16 years ago, I felt as though I was among the minority in my community who was trying to learn more about the environment and sustainability. It’s been really cool to see the progress and number of community members interested in also making it their educational and lifestyle goal. Communities who have struggled just to make a living and fit into society have had a disconnect with barely just trying to get acquainted with a new culture and get by. It’s a privilege to go camping or hiking, or even to have a car to get you to the trail. This next generation are the ones starting to bring back the older generation into it. Budding naturalists, they take an elderly community (largely refugees and immigrants) out on hikes once a month. While the elders may have never been on the trail before, they recognize some of the plants from their home countries. It’s such a wonderful cross-generational opportunity to share knowledge and connection.
My parents are immigrants and they came here from Syria. They didn’t have time to take us camping, or even know how to do that. We didn’t go hiking, but we did picnic. We really knew how to picnic! Now I’m teaching in these same parks, but out on the trails farther out. I never knew that there were trails there. Now I take my mom out to these places.
My uncle in Syria was my main inspiration to be a naturalist. He was a healer, a homeopathist. He healed my eye once with white sage. When I was out of college, interested in working with animals, I applied to work with Inside the Outdoors. Based on my interest in animals they thought I could be a naturalist. My first day of training, they walked me around the site, teaching me about the native plants. I learned that the Tongva used white sage as an eye wash. It all came together for me in that moment. I knew that I had found my calling for the rest of my life. And that’s what I’ve done since.
I worked at Inside the Outdoors for several years, and then at the Environmental Nature Center. I then went to Alaska, hoping to study glaciology and learn the landscape. When I returned, I was still connected with my previous students. I was encouraged to start a school by some of the parents. I was concerned about having to be in an administrative role and not wanting to be disconnected from students. Dr. Khadeeja and Syma were so encouraging, we decided to found Art & Wilderness Institute together. During Covid, we got a lot of interest from the community and women in particular. They wanted to get outside, but were afraid and didn’t know where to start. We’ve familiarized more than 100 women with our trails and wildlife and have trained 10 women to be hiking leaders.
There is a saying of the Prophet: “The earth is green and beautiful and God has appointed you his stewards over it.” There’s a word in Arabic, khulafa. It means inheritors/stewards and many times in the Quran it is alluded to. When they’re reminded of that it’s a different mindset. I’m going on a hike and I’m protecting this trail because it’s who I am to do this. At a lot of our mosques they’re still using styrofoam and our students are speaking up and trying to reduce waste - it’s coming from them! The kids are so awesome, they are going to take care of this earth. Hearing them talk about nature and learning about the native plants and animals is so inspiring.
I created these trading cards with my art hoping to get kids excited that you have to earn. And some are harder than others to earn, like octopus: you have to spot it and conduct a stewardship project. It’s been a really fun learning tool, a resource that these kids love. We have 70 cards now. We even have a contest where kids can submit their artwork to be added to the connection. [Editor's note: You can purchase them through our partner Acorn Naturalists.]
The Art and Wilderness Institute has been a snowball effect. We’ve been fundraising for scholarships to get more kids involved - it was actually spearheaded by one of our students, a 9-year-old, who wanted to support a family’s involvement. It’s provided an organic space for the community to get together, have these amazing experiences, and take ownership. It’s been beautiful to watch. I am so grateful, I learn so much from the parents and kids and am so grateful to be part of this humble community. We got to adopt a state park, work on the maps for it, how we would incorporate trails, and replant it. One of our students is stepping into a management position of stewarding this place. This is our earth, we’re trying to save the planet. We have so much work to do. Kudos to all the environmental education organizations out there doing this work – it’s going to take all of us, working up our sleeves. We’re up against consumer culture. Part of why I do what I do is because of how much I didn’t know when I was younger. The earth is a great teacher and the earth’s pace is slow and forth going, and that’s the pace we’re trying to keep up with and be consistent. One project we have is to plant a plant for every kid who signs up for a class - that they get to plant - to help offset the carbon impact of their attendance. Our next step is to do bigger trees. But you start small. If everybody brings their A-game we have a whole lot of awesome going around.
We really just have this one Earth that we’ve inherited. It’s our responsibility and we will be held accountable for what we do on this Earth, how we treat community, and what we teach these kids. I know we all have habits that can be bad and it’s hard to live a zero waste life, I know it’s not easy, but every day we can try to do a little better. We can all make a big difference in how we live. Consistency is key. And we’re running out of time with what we’re up against in the carbon mess that we have. I don’t know what this next generation will face, we have a limited time to make a difference in our communities and the environment. The question to ask ourselves every day is: did I learn something new and was I kind to the earth today? And if I wasn’t, what can I do tomorrow to make up for today?
When I worked at Inside the Outdoors and Environmental Nature Center, I learned a lot from my co-workers. On every journey we’re on, it’s important to look around and see who you can learn from. I’ve learned a lot from my co-workers and I’m so grateful for every step of my journey.
Learn more about Sama’s organization at: