By Johanna Wynn Mitscherlich, Global Humanitarian Communications Coordinator, CARE International
For the past eight years I have worked in media and communications, aiming to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and people affected by humanitarian crises. My job usually involves interviewing people, writing about their challenges and depicting their hardships, with the aim of finding ways to shed light on the major disasters of our times. So it was certainly something different when I found myself barefoot, on the yoga mat, teaching 14 Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian women yoga and breathing exercises.
Over the last months, every Sunday morning, I volunteered in CARE’s urban refugee center in Amman. In a small container, barely fitting the colorful mats, with children’s paintings on the corrugated metal walls, we spent an hour breathing and moving together. Afterwards, my colleague and psychosocial expert Dua’a Naji gave the women time and space to talk and share their challenges, dreams, hopes and ordeals.
Having worked with refugees for many years, I know that people who have fled their homes need more than just safe shelter, food and medication. “I was so angry with myself, my family, the whole world. I hit my son whenever I was stressed or anxious. I did not know how to control it,” Rania, one of the participants who fled from Syria to Jordan more than seven years ago, told me.
“Every night I woke up with nightmares, unable to sleep. I took pills to stop the bad thoughts and memories. Now, whenever I feel upset, I sit down and do breathing exercises. The yoga has literally saved my family. I have put the sleeping pills away and hope that I will never need them again,” she continues.
Rania and the other women are safe for now in Jordan, but what they have seen, suffered and endured has stayed with them. For many of them, it has resulted in depression and desperation. Invisible from the outside, the wounds of war and displacement need time and space to heal.
According to a recent study by CARE Jordan, women have borne much of the brunt of this war. With many men still in Syria, wounded or unable to work in their professions, women are increasingly taking on both the role of principal breadwinner and caretaker of their children.
“It was just too much horror for my husband,” tells us Fadwa, a 37-year old mother of four boys. “Last November he had a heart attack and has never fully recovered. The hospital wanted 5,000 Jordanian Dinar for the surgery, but all we had was 65. I suddenly found myself being responsible for him, for the kids, for everything. At the same time, my brother had been in prison in Syria for more than one and a half years, and I don’t know if he is dead or alive. Yoga and speaking with other women really helped me take some time for myself, restore my self-confidence, and regain some energy.”
Even if we are not refugee, we know what it feels when the going gets tough. We know what it is like to be tense, unsettled, stressed and upset. But in a situation where people find themselves victims of wider political conflict and war, where it is very easy to feel powerless and without agency, psychological wellbeing is incredibly difficult to maintain and yet more important than ever. It is about regaining personal autonomy in a situation where most things are out of our control.
“I am so tired of receiving bad news from my hometown Mosul in Iraq,” Nadia, another participant, told me. “I have three girls and two boys, and I want to be strong for them. Yoga has helped me center myself and find a way to get through my sadness. The last time I cried my daughter said to me: ‘Mama, don’t cry. Let’s do some yoga together instead.’ She joined a few of the sessions. She remembered them so well and started giving me a class.”
Yoga, talking about sorrows and horrors, combined with other assistance, has helped the women develop a solid foundation from which they can find new ways of living through their hardships. Abeer,
who is in her sixties, put it very simply: “I am doing something now that I have not done for years. I am dedicating time for myself. It feels like I had totally forgotten about my own needs, my own existence.”
Hundreds of men, women and children come to CARE’s Community Centers in Jordan every day, receiving cash assistance and other support, and taking part in psychosocial or recreational activities like yoga. Meeting, talking and playing with each other helps them to cope with the experience of violence, flight and loss of family and friends.
Yoga and other forms of psychosocial support do not put food on the table, provide education for their children, or stop the war in Syria. It does, however, provide a safe space to meet others and rejuvenate, and these are likewise critical things that everyone needs, especially during trying times.
As a trained yoga teacher, I know that asanas, the physical yoga postures, and breathing exercises calm the nervous system. Hearing Rania, Fadwa, Nadia, Abeer and other women talk about how they took what they learnt in the class off the mat and into “real life” impressed me deeply. The pose they liked the most was “the tree”, which focuses on grounding oneself despite balancing on only one leg.
Uprooted from their homes in Syria and Iraq, these strong women held themselves taller with every class, their spines straight, chins lifted, breathing consciously and looking ever more relaxed. Step by step, breath by breath, we need to continue making sure that Syrian refugees receive the support they desperately need, including helping them heal the many invisible wounds that war and displacement has left them with.
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