SANTA ANA, California — Some of the most difficult aspects of being a refugee can be the boredom and lack of movement. It makes sense then that movement, whether through exercise such as Capoeira and other forms of dance or intellectually and emotionally through theater, can be dramatically beneficial for refugee health — emotionally as well as physically.
Exercise and Refugees
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), “Sport can play an important role in relieving tension and fear among people having to live together in camps and settlements.”
This opinion also seems to be held by Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, who visited Syrian refugees in Jordan last month, and has allocated $150 million to Syrians as humanitarian aid.
Part of this money will go towards funding the Right To Play organization’s efforts to enable over 1,500 teachers and coaches to teach through play. This organization has been proven to boost children’s confidence and outlook, incorporate and build communities and conduct extensive consulting to best adapt their program to the communities’ needs.
UNICEF has also made strides in combating refugee tedium through exercise. In 2010, UNICEF introduced Capoeira to Iraqi refugee camps in Syria. Capoeira is a conflation of self-defense and dance that has roots in Brazil, where African prisoners were forbidden by their captors to learn fighting or self-defense. They therefore had to mask it as dance, also enabling them to vent their aggression with relative impunity.
For the refugees of the Al-Tanf camp in Syria, Capoeira brought an alleviation in children’s mood after just weeks. It completely transformed the mentality of the entire camp, bringing much needed psychological stability in an utterly unstable environment.
In 2012, at the Moula refugee camp in southern Chad, a similar change took place due to the introduction of dance workshops put on by dancer Taïgue Ahmed. After the dancing workshops started, there was a noticeable increase in interaction within the camp. Ahmed also started a project called “Refugees On the Move,” which plans to extend his dance workshops throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Dancing is a visceral way to build communities through sharing a sense of humanity with other people; Ahmed himself says the only reason he dances is to share laughter with others. But, Ahmed’s dances do not stop there, for they also encourage hygiene, education, women’s rights and raise awareness on HIV/AIDS.
A Syrian refugee man living in Turkey, in response to both his daughters having post-traumatic stress disorder, started a theater in Reyhanli with the goal of “break[ing]up the cycle of war memories by capturing children’s attention with short, humorous scenes.”
The children have taken to it with a seriousness that expresses the importance it has come to hold in their community.
However, the seriousness of preparation gives way to the laughter of the performance. This laughter is a direct result of wickedness fleeing in the face of justice, a common plot conceit that transforms victims into heroes. The energy that comes from seeing a play where the protagonist overcomes seemingly overwhelming odds is visible in the faces of the children, who have to face such odds every day.
In 2011, students from the University of Cincinnati traveled to Africa with the goal of making an original piece about the subject of identity. Their collaborators were African refugees from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Similar to the plays held in Turkey, this play would come to be centered on finding power through togetherness in the face of trauma and loss.
Many of the refugees had grim stories to tell about their past, including massacres that left many orphaned, malnourished and hopeless. However, having lived through these horrors, most refugees wanted to have a meaningful and positive life, and were open and willing to be a part of the production.
Michael Littig, professor at NYU, headed the seven-person team that collaborated to complete the work they titled, “The Collapsible Space Between Us,” which was performed for the first time on World Refugee Day. Ultimately, it enabled the refugees to give voice to their dreams and humanity as well as forge lasting relationships.
Theater and dance have proven to be strong psychological stabilizers and community builders for refugees around the world. Aid organizations should strive to make dance and theater programs a part of their regimen in tackling global poverty.
– Jordan Schunk