Just do it!

In the middle of an unofficial refugee camp, on the border between Greece and Macedonia is a small tent.

It is amazing how a thin membrane of nylon can create an enclosed space that becomes a sanctuary and haven in the midst of the chaos; for groups of women, children and men, coming together… to share stories, to laugh and cry. To mindfully breathe together. To restore themselves. My husband and I who had been volunteering with refugees in Pireaus were asked to help provide consultation and support in the setting up of a small psychosocial support project called Refugee Trauma Initiative operating in the camps on the borders of northern Greece. The refugee families were incredibly stressed and often traumatized not only by the journey to arrive at the camp but also by the subsequent uncertainty and hardship of living in the camp itself. Day to day living entails the struggle for basic things: food, washing, warmth, shelter, essential resources. In between are empty spaces in which children become restless and bored, men and women worry, remember and grieve. Tensions between different groups or individuals often erupt into violent episodes and confrontations. People spoke of their shock and disbelief at the conditions they were being forced to endure when they had hoped for safety and a humane welcome. Idomeni did not feel like a sanctuary. 


Two wonderful and enthusiastic therapists Zarlasht Halamzai who is training and Reham Kenane were keen for me to introduce mindfulness practices to the vulnerable groups of Afghan and Syrian women and children in Idomeni that they had been working with. My fears of how mindfulness would be received or lost in translation were unfounded. Placing my trust in the practice, I asked the women and the children to hold out their hand and receive the raisin, they smiled as they took it to their ear, suddenly the outside world and all the cacophony of helicopters and the sound of fights breaking out melted into the distance. They closed their eyes and listened instead to the rhythm of their breathing.

One women following the body-scan smiled and said for a moment she experienced coming back to herself, forgetting briefly the identities and responsibilities she had of mother, wife, refugee.  

Another said she felt peaceful and calm for the first time in a long time. The children some of whom had been fretful, others very distressed as children in these situations often are, curled up peacefully when invited to become “sleeping lions”. Gentle moments like these can imprint themselves on a traumatized child’s soul as she lies with her arms crossed on her small chest in the company of the other children, her face peaceful and relaxed, fight or flight responses temporarily turned down. There are no immediate solutions here, we knew we cannot change the nature of events the conditions that brought us all to this border. Nor do I want to romanticize our gathering and the effects of practicing mindfully together as if it had more meaning other than a momentary and profound connecting.

However these moments seemed to provide a space in which to reclaim one’s humanity, to announce one’s presence, to restore some dignity, to allow the tears that otherwise were suppressed or only silently shed in the darkness of the night in order to protect the children. To let the body have some ease, not to push or pull in any direction but to acknowledge what is here. We are bound by eye contact, touch, sadness, joy. I appreciated the simplicity and power of just being together without understanding each other’s words


I have never guided practices with translators and there were surreal moments when a fight broke out near the tent in one instance and in another when Reham had to look up a word or phrase on google translate in order to translate the guidance– we took it in our stride because what else could we do. Certainly in these conditions a lightness of touch and huge amount of flexibility are required plus a big dose of trust – “just do it !” we told ourselves….. Resources and training are needed specially materials translated into Arabic and Farsi but there is much scope for work in this area not only mindfulness for refugees in the camps but also mindfulness for the incredible volunteers on the ground who are working flat out and in danger of burnout as they commit themselves to the task of helping.