Ethiopian women giggle and strain in a yoga class like no other

  • 04 March 2013 |
  • UNHCR
A UNHCR trauma rehabilitation programme is using yoga to reach Ethiopian refugees in South Sudan.
A UNHCR trauma rehabilitation programme is using yoga to reach Ethiopian refugees in South Sudan. Some of the women doing yoga. Their teacher says that because they are stronger, they can hold positions for much longer than office workers.

The women giggle and strain as they try to follow their teacher, Naomi Swain, who is sitting in the lotus position on the red cement floor of a spartan classroom in South Sudan.

But Swain is impressed with her students, all of whom have fled violence or persecution in Ethiopia since 2004 and found shelter in Gorom Refugee Camp, near the South Sudan capital, Juba. "Their bodies are quite different. They're much stronger, they can hold positions for a long time as opposed to office workers," noted Swain.

The British national teaches the free yoga classes to about a dozen students, but the idea to bring her in to help the refugees at Gorom came from Sara Gottfredsen, an associate protection officer, after she and other UNHCR staff in Juba began taking classes from Swain. She uses a curriculum from Mandala House, a non-profit organisation specialising in trauma rehabilitation.

It's certainly something different in the drab daily life of camp, and Gorom is believed to be the only refugee camp in South Sudan that provides such a programme. Gottfredsen said the aim was to help empower 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 programme 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.

So far, the daily classes seem to be having a positive effect, though the women had never heard of yoga before they met Swain. "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.

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