Healing Mental Scars through Sport

Ahmad* is 13 years old. He is sitting with an angry stare in front of the room where the first capoeira class will take place. Like most of the adolescent boys at Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, Ahmad is described as being angry, isolated and a troublemaker.

This behaviour is mostly associated with emotional and psychological problems. Evidence shows that Syrian refugee adolescents living in Zaatari refugee camp reported emotional problems such as being scared, urinating in bed, crying and isolation. Furthermore it’s noted that Syrian female adolescents showed specific problems, with more emotional distress (self-mutilation behaviour, depression, tension, nervousness, grieving, fear) rather than Syrian male adolescents, who exhibited more “troublemaking” behaviours.

“I mean children that are lost, really young children that were dependent on their fathers and, having only grown up a little, lost them. I’ve helped them to get through that. Yeah, for sure they came to training, but most of the time they would just stand there. I’ve helped them to realise that life goes on, that it’s not in either of our hands”, said the camp staff.

Zaatari Camp opened in July 2012 and approximately 430,000 refugees have passed through the camp. According to UNHCR , roughly 80,000 refugees remain in Zaatari, from which 57% are youth and 19.9% are children under five years old. Apart from the obvious limited resources, financial problems and lack of livelihood opportunities, Syrian refugees carry with them the burden of their experiences of war traumas inherently linked to war.

For the women’s capoeira class, Leyla* comes along with her little brother. She is a very quiet and calm young girl. Leyla’s brother has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder that affects language and behavioural development in children. This condition demands extra attention that is noticed during the first class by her trainers. Mental illness can have a significant impact not only on the sufferer, but also on family members.

Being part of the capoeira class seems to be a great opportunity for both Leyla and her brother. A lot of approaches, in refugee settings, are based on psychiatric care only, therefore creative methods to deal with these issues are needed. Sport can provide a crucial route to improving the quality of life, as well as helping with mental health needs sports can have a positive impact in improving the quality of life of this vulnerable community.

In the past years, several reports about mental illness in refugee context, in Jordan have recommended increased access to leisure pursuits. So children can participate in recreational activities, such as sport, social, educational and cultural activities. In Leyla’s case, “we could see a change, not only for her, but also for her brother”, said the trainer. Furthermore, the trainers reported that ‘she was able do each exercise without her brother’. Also, Leyla’s brother was able to be ‘comfortable alone’ without the need of his sister’s constant attention.

The effects of war can be devastating. Refugees, and especially children have witnessed violence, been victims of sexual violence, or they might have seen their family members being murdered, leaving them severely traumatised. Once they arrive to the refugee camp the trauma doesn’t disappear. Part of their lost childhood can be regained through the joy, and normalcy of doing sports. In a refugee context it’s a priority to have safe spaces, so that children can play supporting their emotional and social development.

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