Healing war wounds with yoga

Bella Hancock with a group of children in Amman Jordan

"Will this make my head feel better?" asks one of the men attending Bella Hancock's yoga classes in Amman, Jordan. As refugees many of her students suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and such workshops are designed to counter its negative effects. Many struggle to control their anger, for example, feel a loss of control or unsafe.

Hancock says that few of her students talk about their experiences and why they left their countries as the stories are often too traumatic to recount. One woman said she had not seen or heard from her husband for a year and another had lost three of her children. One lady was a teacher from Mosul, Iraq, who worked in a school for Christians and Muslims before it was bombed, killing many of her students and colleagues.

Hancock recalls a young woman in one of her classes who practiced all the yoga positions sitting in a chair. "There was something about her boundaries, she needed a really strong boundary about herself and I felt that she had been violated," she says.

The yoga classes are run by Collateral Repair Project, a grassroots organisation originally set up in response to the US-led invasion of Iraq, to support refugees escaping the country. Since then it has expanded its outreach, largely due to the huge number of Syrians entering Jordan to escape the conflict in their own country. The centre itself is attended by Christians, Muslims, Syrians, Iraqis and Jordanians. "It's like a community," says Hancock.

Initiatives to help refugees are certainly necessary in Jordan. As of October 2014 more than 600,000 Syrian refugees had registered in the country. Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR currently number 30,000, a figure that is ever growing thanks to Islamic State (ISIS) brutality in the region.

Nestled in the east of Amman, in a district called Hashmi Al-Shamali, the centre is located close to the homes of refugees who come to this neighbourhood because it is cheap. They may have fled their home countries with barely more than $1,000 only to live in overpriced, cramped rooms they find difficult to furnish or heat because they're not allowed to work. Collateral Repair also provides food and fuel vouchers and, in winter, dispensed kerosene heaters, carpets, blankets and school uniforms so that children can go to school.

Hancock's involvement with Collateral Repair came about a year and a half ago when she held a cabaret night at home in Ireland to raise money for Syrian refugees and sent the money raised to the project. As a full time yoga and Arabic dance instructor she then decided to offer her services as a teacher and flew to Amman for the first time last year. She teaches not only the practice of yoga but also trains attendees to be instructors so they continue to practice long after she is gone.

At the end of the classes students gather in a circle to talk about how they feel after the exercises. "The kind of words that came were comfort, safety, I feel peaceful, I feel calm, I feel happy, I feel more at ease, my head feels better," says Hancock. One lady who attended a dance class told her: "Thank you so much for everything. I don't really dance in my life but I really especially want to thank you for the dance classes because when I was dancing I forgot all my problems and I just felt joy."

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Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor