Yoga for refugees – volunteering in Lebanon

lebanon refugee camps volunteering bekaa valley
Last year I spent a week in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley refugee camps on a yoga for refugees project with Tools for Inner Peace, a new charity which I’m now a trustee on, in collaboration with a local charity, Salam LADC 

Tools for Inner Peace is a long term project set up by Minna Järvenpää to enhance mental health and well-being among refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley through simple, gentle yoga and relaxation techniques. I became involved as one of the charity’s trustees in 2016 and visited Lebanon in April 2017 to see some of the projects in action.

There are over 800,000 refugees in this part of Lebanon and a quarter of the country’s entire population are refugees. Salam charity was founded in Lebanon in 2006 and aims to improve the lives of refugee communities and helping them connect with their host country. Read more about the ethos and founding story of Salam here.

We believe in the necessity of inner peace in every human being (salamladc.org)

Tools for Inner Peace partnered with Salam to provide yoga and relaxation classes to women and children in the camps – although they are officially referred to as settlements.

Life in the settlements (refugee camps)

lebanon refugee camps volunteering salam ladc charity

I spent ten days working with Salam charity on activities ranging from food and materials distribution to setting up a mini cinema for refugee children. See gallery below for pics.

 

In the Bekaa Valley, private farm land has been used to house informal settlements for Syrian families, many of whom have been here between five and seven years now with little sign of any end in sight.

The settlements I visited or drove by were of varying sizes, some housing just a few families others are up to three or four hundred people, mainly Syrian refugees, with new families still arriving (our location in Bekaa Valley was less than 20km from the Syrian border).

Life for families is hard with no formal refugee status to obtain and no certainty over their future. Refugees are easily exploited by farm landlords who can charge high rents for living on their land. It’s also not uncommon for families to work 14-hour days on the farms for $4 a day or sometimes nothing.

Schools might be far to travel to so many children may receive little or no education with few job prospects for adults. This is coupled with an anti-refugee atmosphere as locals often feel Syrians are ‘taking their jobs’, a rhetoric echoed across the world, which hampers chances for integration.

The settlements I visited had lots little children running around, all under the ages of five or six looking slightly dishevelled. Many would have been born in their new host country and know no other way of life. While the slightly older ones would have left their country during school years so are likely to have memories of their past life and possibly even missed out on some years of education.

A few will be taken under the wings of UNCHR to another host country but according to one woman I spoke to this only happens to about five out of a hundred families. She said she hoped one day they can leave the camp by boat or plane and set up life somewhere else.

Yoga for refugees

taking a yoga for refugees in lebanon tools for inner peace

Minna and I joined Salam’s roster of weekly activities such as educational play sessions and food and supplies distribution, as well as organising our own yoga sessions in and around the camps. By the end of last year Minna was running weekly yoga classes in three refugee settlements and two centres that provide services to refugees.

The yoga is so simple but so effective. Simple techniques work on the nervous system to bring about deep relaxation. Through gentle poses and breath work the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated which calms the body and strengthens the relaxation response, while the sympathetic nervous system with its stress response calms down.

One study found that 45% of surveyed Syrian refugee children suffered significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

The need here is profound. As many as half of refugees are experiencing psychological distress or mental illness. One study found that 45% of surveyed Syrian refugee children suffered significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and up to 60% in adults. The result of this is tension and anxiety, played out by nightmares, sleep disturbances, withdrawal, loss of concentration, anger and aggression. A key to the treatment of psychological trauma is soothing the nervous system and inducing the relaxation response which is what the yoga does.

Minna set up Tools for Inner Peace has she experienced firsthand the stress and anxiety caused by war while she worked as an international diplomat in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. She discovered yoga and meditation as a means of maintaining balance under stressful and occasionally dangerous circumstances and is now committed to sharing those healing practices with others in need.

 

Tools for Inner Peace also runs yoga classes for refugee groups in London and around the UK thanks to funding from Sport England so if you know of a refugee centre who might benefit from classes please get in touch.
Find out more about our work with Tools for Inner Peace here and the latest crowd-funding campaign, Yoga for Peace here

Why We Should Never Stop Reading The News

‘I still believe that when we turn our back on human rights, we numb the knowing parts of our minds and make a space for something terrible to happen to someone else’ – Deborah Levy

This year the campaigning group Liberty celebrates 80 years – launched just after the end of 2nd world war, it’s been campaigning for freedom and equality of human rights around the world since.

Earlier this year The Guardian rounded up renowned writers and asked them what does Liberty mean to you? It was a powerful and thought provoking piece. Today’s issues affecting human rights and suffering where all touched on, from freedom of expression and speech, to privacy, surveillance and freedom from torture – each writer was essentially calling out for us not to turn our backs on these issues and each other. My favourites contributions were from Deborah Levy, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Barbara Taylor.

“Protest is a crime, prisoners are held in secret on charges not disclosed, not even to lawyers. Torture has been unofficially facilitated by our state, which colludes with America’s vengeful and nebulous “war on terror”. Terrorism and fanatical Wahabi Islam are bringing out the worst in the west. And I feel again that old terror in my tired bones, the feeling that life now is entirely dependent on the whims and power of those in charge. The little people suffer and fear for themselves and liberty,” – Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

Unfortunately, so many people, including friends of mine, have started to consciously stop reading the news or what’s happening in the world. I’m not sure whether it’s because we’re now bombarded by more media coverage than ever before thanks to social media channels, so it’s become overkill, or whether they simply care less.

I personally avoid daily tabloids and free papers but I will make an effort to read news from around the world (totally addicted to weekend papers for in depth coverage) and then Twitter for a range of different voices.

Can we have too much news? Columnist Katharine Whitehorn recently discussed this earlier this year – here’s her advice on how we’re supposed to decide what news to read.

‘Maybe those of us who go invariably to the same interests should – let’s say once a week – choose something at random and read it through, just to look over the parapet of our own concerns.”

For me, reading news and features is not just for general knowledge but more importantly, it builds awareness and empathy towards others. Whether someone is the other side of the world to us or simply next door, reading about the human story behind the headline is essential to keep human empathy alive.

When we listen to the news, people can become just another statistic but when I read stories like this one about Syrian refugees in Lebanon it’s the grave reality of what they are living through that brings home the general horror of war.

 

Photograph: Giles Duley
Khalida was shot by a sniper, leaving her paralysed from the neck down. She now lives with her four children and husband (pictured), who provides her care, in a makeshift tent in the Bekaa Valley. Photograph: Giles Duley

It might feel uncomfortable, depressing and might even make us feel helpless when change is out of our hands – (‘what’s the point in reading about it when there’s nothing I can do to help‘) – but it’s not about stopping a war, it’s about raising our levels of empathy so we’re more in tune with each other – whether it’s someone in London facing the injustices of disability benefit cuts or someone being tortured in Guantanamo, without empathy there can be no fight.

Apathy can only lead to inaction. Turning a blind only makes things worse for others. Having an greater awareness of what’s going on around us, means we’re less likely to let the injustices of the world pass us by.

And if we ever think it’s just easier not to know, then we just have to go back to Deborah Levy’s words: “We are all connected to each other’s cruelty and to each other’s kindness.”