Above: A group of about a dozen women practice yoga together Gorom Refugee Camp, near the South Sudan capital, Juba.
The free daily yoga classes began when Sara Gottfredsen, an associate protection officer with the UN Refugee Agency, and other UNHCR staff took yoga classes from teacher Naomi Swain in Juba. Using a curriculum from Mandala House, a non-profit organization specializing in trauma rehabilitation (specifically survivors of sexual & gender-based violence), Swain teaches yoga postures, stretches and breathing exercises to her students, all women whom have fled violence or persecution in Ethiopia since 2004.
The purpose of the program (likely the only one provided at a Sudan refugee camp) is to empower the women in the camp of 1,950 Ethiopian refugees and “create a space away from their daily tasks of cooking food, carrying firewood, fetching water and caring for their children.”
“If they have a stronger bond with each other, they will play a bigger part in the deci-sion-making process in the camp,” said Gottfredsen, who hopes to expand the pro-gramme to other camps, including those providing shelter to tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees. “It’s more about their doing something for themselves and as a group of women together,” she noted.
As suspected, not everyone in the camp is enthused about yoga:
“I’m happy to come but my mother and father are not happy,” Friday James told a UNHCR visitor. “They said that if you do yoga you cannot have children,” she added, while confiding that she didn’t believe a word of it.
But it seems to have made a difference.
“I feel better, I’m happy when I’m doing my work at home,” said Ariet Okidi, a mother of three children, during one recent session. “I’m relaxed,” she added with a big smile.
Read more about Mandala House and their efforts at MandalaHouse.org.
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