With a passion for peace on my mind, I stepped off the plane into Beirut with a rush of excitement. I was finally able to implement the project that had been resting on my heart for a year.
I had come to be a short-term project volunteer to teach yoga and meditation to Syrian refugee children. I had been actively teaching this practice in the United States over the past couple of years. I felt a calling to use these activities to help promote spiritual solidarity and be a comfort to those affected by conflict.
Yoga and meditation are peaceful practices known almost all over the world regardless of race or religion. Yoga and meditation can be learned at any age, which made this an open window of opportunity. I was eager to get started with the children in the camps and around Akkar from my first step in Lebanon.
I was able to drive around Beirut and Byblos and get a brief taste of the country en route to Akkar. The small coffee shops, beautiful beaches and colorful street art scenes gave Beirut its own likeable flavor. The locals were charming and very warm to foreigners. The ancient ruins and tasteful atmosphere of our brief Byblos stop gave it a beautiful aura. Walking around on cobblestone streets, I heard people speaking a mixed dialect of Arabic, English and French. Watching the sun touch the ocean with colors of vibrant oranges and reds was the perfect way to continue our journey to the north.
Approaching Akkar, the landscape was an endless mountain scene. The air was crisp and the fruit was visibly bountiful from afar. Bqarzla itself was gently tucked into this gorgeous mountain range and hugged by the surrounding colors of greenery. You could view the miles of olive trees, fruit trees and walnut trees as you navigated the narrow dirt roads. The Peace Center was populated with some of the most open minded and driven international volunteers. We were all there with the same mission, regardless of our individual duty; to help Syrian refugees and provide them with our own forms of spiritual solidarity. After getting a taste of the atmosphere, it further enhanced my belief that this was the perfect place to implement my project.
My first yoga class took place in the Peace Center during an activity day with the local Syrian refugees around Bqarlza. Needless to say, having a plethora of hyperactive kids after outside activities sometimes is not the most ideal setting to start a first time yoga class. We separated the children into groups of girls and boys and began the classes with a simple introduction. To my surprise, the older girls immediately took a liking to the practice. They followed me with every changing position in their own stamina and grace while following the rhythm of the breath. Two of the girls enjoyed it so much, they repeatedly asked for more private sessions. I considered this first attempt a success!
I started yoga and meditation classes the next week in Tel Abbas Camp. The environment was charming and welcoming from the start. The elders in the camp were open to my idea of having yoga/meditation workshops with the children. On the first day, many of the men greeted me with “YOGA!” and placed their hands at their hearts center with friendly grins spread across their faces. Gratitude and happiness flowed deep amongst this group of people, regardless of their current situation.
I took the children into the school room and showed them how to focus on their breath. From there, we went into simple positions. The kids followed me and were intrigued by this new practice. During one of the positions, I asked the children to wiggle their arms in the air before breathing out. It must have reminded them of a dance. The children, without hesitation, started shaking their hips and singing a song in Arabic. Whether it be breathing or dancing to gain focus on the moment, both are completely acceptable in my yoga class! The remainder of the class ran for about 45 minutes and all of the children participated for the entirety of the session.
After a sigh of relief on my end, two of the older girls, Rawa and Ghofran, asked for another class. I took the two girls aside and showed them new, untaught positions. I was so excited to see the passion and focus these girls had after just one class. Some of the moms from the camp even joined in for 20 minutes after the kid’s session. Like the children, they were intrigued and hadn’t yet been exposed to the practice of yoga.
A few days following at the Peace Center, Malak, an 11-year-old Syrian refugee living in Bqarlza, ran up to me during her families’ tea time with the other volunteers.
“Madame, Madame, Yoga! Yoga!” she said, showing off her beautiful smile and excitement.
I was surprised and definitely grinning at her newfound passion for yoga. I took her into the Peace Center playroom and showed her different breathing methods. She was very determined to challenge herself, which was a treat for me to witness. I taught her the mantra “Salaam, Salaam, Salaam” (Peace, Peace, Peace) while breathing out to help her focus.
“Salaam! Je l’aime!” (Peace, I like it!) she exclaimed before placing her hands at hearts center and running back home.
This made my heart happy. Peace starts in small steps, and this was definitely the perfect stepping stone.
During my last week, yoga was gaining popularity all around. The kids greeted me with “yoga, yoga!” when I stepped into Tel Abbas. Ghofran and Rawa were still asking me for extra lessons after every session, sometimes even three! During the next activity day at the Peace Center, the children would greet me with their hands at their hearts’ center. They were eager to show me their even breaths and how they had been practicing their favorite poses. I was happy to hear that my fellow volunteer was greeted by a boy striking a yoga pose in the town center. Even a few of the neighbors mentioned they enjoyed watching the “sport” (referring to yoga) on the roof in the mornings.
On my last day, I decided to go down and help with some French tutoring. I started talking to a girl, Zeinab, with whom I had become friendly. In between tutoring, she said, “I like yoga. It makes me feel calm” and smiled sheepishly.
I could not help but feel blessed with these moments. All these small experiences gripped at my chest. I felt like everything slowly came together over the two weeks. After my departure, yoga is still going to continue on for the children. Another volunteer, Abby, will continue doing this practice in my absence. I know this practice will continue to help these children and be a healthy stress relief from their everyday life hurdles.
Peace begins with planting seeds in the hearts of children and watching them flourish. We cannot build peace in a day, but we can certainly aid its continuous growth. From there, we can watch this ideology blossom into a nonviolent future for Syrian children. Spiritual solidarity starts with being brought together by peace and a passion for unity across borders.
“Salaam, Salaam, Salaam” to every refugee and those endlessly grasped in the hands of conflict.
Short Term Volunteer – October 2016
Boston, Massachusetts – United States of America