Yoga in the Camps

Practicing Peace: Lebanese introduce yoga to Syrian Refugees. 

In a tented settlement along Lebanon’s Syrian border a crew of aid workers and volunteers cushion the dusty ground with rubberized mats. From the sidelines displaced Syrian children look on in anticipation of their first yoga experience. This UNICEF camp might be a far cry from the scenic beaches of the average yoga advertisement, but then again, this isn’t an average session.

17 yogis from Union Square Yoga studio in Beirut have amended their weekday schedules to introduce this eastern practice to refugee youth. Yet each participant in this class is both teacher and student. To Danielle Abisaab, the director of the studio who initiated the program, the idea of interexchange is central to the program’s success. “I think its not just about me going in and teaching these kids but its also allowing other people to see from the outside what it is,” says Abisaab. “Who are these kids and how are they exactly like us? They do the same things, they get enthusiastic about music and art and moving their bodies and breathing just like we do.”

 The volunteers, led by Abisaab, spend the day coaching the refugees on yoga basics. Upwards of 70 children are here for the event and their enthusiasm seems to build with each exercise. By the time they are working on their headstands everyone is smiling with joy, albeit upside down. After several hours practicing under the sun the new yoga students retire to the shade of a covered stage for song and dance. 

According to Abisaab, the day’s activities are the fruition of an idea that took root five years ago when she first became interested in teaching yoga in a Palestinian refugee camp. When her initial offer was dismissed she put the project on hold until she was introduced to Maria Assi this summer. As the CEO of BEYOND Association, a Lebanese non-profit working with Syrian refugees, Assi welcomed the opportunity. Together, they organized a small yoga event with approximately 30 children. Following the event’s success Abisaab decided to return with some of her fellow enthusiasts about a month later. 

The event, which took place on October 1, utilizes yoga for physical exercise as well as therapeutic benefits through awareness training. These activities contribute to what Assi describes as psychosocial support. “[The purpose is] to let the children know more about yoga and to let them know that we can help ourselves, there is a power within us. We can, alone or with some friends, we can be out of our trauma,” explains Assi. “If we want to support them the food and the shelters are not enough. Maybe it’s the priority but it’s not enough to build their future. The real future can start from building their mind and building their spirits back again.”

To date, Lebanon has accepted a staggering 1.1 million UN-registered Syrian refugees with many more uncounted. The influx makes Lebanon highest per capita host of refugees in the world and the massive immigration has been received with mixed emotions. 

In light of the situation Abisaab hopes that her yoga will go beyond empowering the displaced children to planting the seeds of inter-communal understanding. “When you’re asked to move your body and breathe and be conscious of certain things and be conscious in the here and now it’s almost like everything else drops and you remember that we’re all the same,” she attests. “Yoga is about actually knowing and realizing that we are all the same regardless of where we come from or our social background our story, our history, it doesn’t really matter we all have a body, we all have eyes and ears and a heart… So if they walk out of this class just having remembered this, my job is done.” 

Leila Macaron, one of the event’s yogi volunteers, says she was happy to work with the children and support their wellbeing. “I’m really proud of what Lebanon has been doing when it comes to the refugees’ issues. We have opened our borders. I think there are maybe 2 million people here now and every once and a while you’ll see an event on social media where they are collecting clothes, toys, organizing trips like this one and it really shows that the Lebanese people are involved and helpful.”

When the music comes to a stop Macaron and the other volunteers roll up their yoga mats, bid their farewells to the children and drive off to Beirut. Assi remains at the camp with her colleagues at BEYOND Association to plan for the future. Will there be another yoga event in the future? Assi responds, “I hope so!”

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