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Meet the Volunteers Helping Refugees Battle Boredom with Yoga, Circus Tricks, and Storytelling

Aid workers are helping refugees get more than the bare necessities.

A refugee with a hula hoop at the Moria camp in Lesvos. Photo by Jill Maglio

As the refugee crisis continues, so too does the aid effort. But it's not just food, clothing, medicine, and other essentials that are getting donated. Whether it's local knitters in Greece, Clowns Without Borders, theater groups in Calais, or holistic therapists in the UK, there's a global effort spearheaded by people who want to use the skills they have to help refugees beyond the bare necessities.


The argument for the work these groups do is simple—that people cannot thrive on food alone. "The arts and access to beauty encourage human dignity," says Dr. Anna Kim, a research fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is the lead scholar on a research project in conjunction with the group Thriving Cities, looking into the roles of arts and beauty in cutting across social divides and in forming basic structures that can enable social justice. As part of her research she will be traveling to the catastrophe-hit Greek island of Lesvos, which saw around half a million refugees pass through it in 2015.

"Beauty, arts, and human expression—far from being just the cream at the top of society when all basic needs are fulfilled, such as medication and health and so forth, are fundamental to human thriving," she says.

LA-based yoga instructor Erin Weber echoes this sentiment. She started teaching art classes and volunteering at Pikpa—a camp in Lesvos for vulnerable women and children—in 2015, before moving on to yoga. "I was more interested in connecting the kids and parents of different ethnicities and creating harmony, thus the yoga. So we did various tactile activities and physical games. By the end of my time at the camp, there was an amazing calm and harmony."

"Often people just wanted to be heard. So I offered a lot of advice with different pranayama [breathing techniques], aromatherapy, mouth gargles, and simple therapeutic yoga asanas [poses]."


Constantine Kadel, a Bikram yoga instructor from Boston who has been working in Pikpa camp for the last two and a half months, reports a similar effect. He mostly works with children ages three to 11, and says they're all turning into little yogis. "The more I showed them the more excited they became. All day you can hear them say 'yoga yoga yoga!' You can realize how proud they are and how empowered the yoga makes them feel."

The effect of yoga, Constantine says, is substantial. "It gives them a chance to turn their brains off and connect their minds with their bodies. I see a lot of joy and enthusiasm in the kids. I also see they have a chance to process their emotions. The same goes for the adults. In fact, I continuously see positive results."

This might sound strange when you consider that many refugees arrive in Europe cold, wet, hungry, and tired. CircusAID volunteer Jill Maglio points out that one of the biggest problems the refugees face is profound boredom, which can have a serious impact on mental health.

An occupational therapist from New York City, Jill used circus skills as therapy in Lesvos. Visit any refugee camp and you'll see that it is in equal measure extremely stressful and extremely boring. "It's like being in solitary confinement," Jill says. "Having nothing to do and being in a positive mental state can be hard enough—but having nothing to do and having the trauma you've experienced, leaving your family, conflict at home, all these unknowns… that's quite maddening."


At first she was shy about bringing out the circus equipment, thinking that people wouldn't want to learn to juggle as they'd be busy being, you know, exhausted and traumatized. "But what I found was there was an abundance of volunteers. The impression I got was that people had nothing to do," says Jill.

"I brought equipment to make 25 hula hoops and as soon as the guys in the camp saw what I was doing, they rushed over to help. They wanted something to do. I also brought feather balancing and juggling balls. The objective wasn't that people learn circus skills, but that people were interacting, and laughing, and smiling. They had a bit of time and respite from the trauma they're experiencing to promote their resilience for the next stage of the journey."

On the other side of Europe, the situation's a little different. Bobby is chair of trustees for Art Refuge UK, a group that works in the camps of Calais and Dunkerque, sending qualified art therapists to run sessions through making visual arts. She says that some people "don't get" what it is that they do, but Medecins Du Monde and Medecins Sans Frontieres are both working with them. The stories they hear are sobering.

"Last week we therapists started playing with some plasticine, and this group of boys started joining in," Bobby says. "They were a bit skeptical at first thinking 'what the hell?' After some time one of them made a 2D representation of a boat. And another boy started to make a vehicle out of twigs and plasticine and made it into a lorry. He wrote 'UK' on the side of it. Then he got some paper and he put two figures inside the lorry and also made a plasticine policeman. One of our team made a little cat, and he adapted it and made it a sniffer dog. So it turns out it was about his experience of being faced with police brutality in Calais, and how he's tried with his friends to get into the back of a lorry and the police pulled them out. Meanwhile the other boy had turned his 2D boat into this really robust 3D ship that he said was going to take him to Britain."

Gauri Raje, who works for Tellers Without Borders—an organization that operates in the UK and abroad to help refugees and displaced people process their trauma through stories—tells me a story that perhaps underlines the importance of this kind of work. "On one project I was working with women refugees," Gauri remembers. "They all had their status they had been in the country for about four years—they were stable. One day, we were sharing folk tales, and I told them a few stories. At the end of the three-hour session they said: 'We really enjoyed this, because it was about us and not about the fact we're refugees.' We could examine their hopes and dreams and desires."

Perhaps that's the thing worth considering. Whether refugees and asylum seekers are being treated like goods to be examined, fixed, and slapped with a red wristband, or like humans who become bored and despondent, and need stimulation to think and feel.

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