“Every person on the planet deserves healthy, dignified and fulfilling lives.” - OURMALA
OURMALA is an organization dedicated to providing immediate and lasting change for refugees and asylum-seekers through therapeutic care, educational services and access to critical resources. OURMALA exists to help refugees and asylum-seekers recover from the atrocities they have experienced and rebuild their lives.
The following are a selection of case studies about OURMALA’s beneficiaries and how their yoga program has resulted in positive outcomes in their lives. These beneficiaries are from varying backgrounds, with different asylum status and have been attending OURMALA’s yoga program for different lengths of time.
To protect identity, all names here have been changed.
Case studies 1 - 6 were kindly written-up on a pro bono basis by volunteer Clêr Lewis in 2018 based on a series of 1- 2-1 interviews that had been conducted over the course of 2017 as part of a major impact measurement project.
Case studies 7 - 8 were kindly written-up on a pro bono basis by volunteer Amber Collinge and these short case studies are based on a BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour interview with women beneficiaries in September 2017. Ages, country of origin and how long they’ve been attending OURMALA were not recorded in this interview.
You can listen to this interview HERE. The OURMALA interview starts about half way in.
Arta is an asylum-seeking mum from Albania, who was trafficked and has survived sexual violence and exploitation. She has been a member of OURMALA’s Happy Baby community for more than 1.5 years. Like many of the mums in our Happy Baby Project, Arta has survived some of humanity’s worst atrocities, including years of repeated physical, sexual and psychological violence. The Project offers a safe, happy place for her and the other mums and children to meet and play. The importance of this cannot be underestimated as without family or friends to support them, the project is the only place for many mums struggling to confront and overcome their experiences of torture and human cruelty to feel safe and make new friendships. As Arta says herself: ‘...when we go they’re there with their hands open and they hug you, which you know I don’t get from no one. I don’t have no-one in this country, like no family, no-one who’s gonna hug me if I don’t have these people there waiting for me..’
Arta has also been accessing the Trauma-informed Yoga Classes. Prior to this, Arta had never experienced yoga but she was keen to try it out because she’d heard it might give her some much needed time to focus on herself. As a single mum, time is something of which she has very little. She soon realized that her yoga practice helped her to relieve her bodily tension and find moments of calm. ‘...it’s like a space you can be relaxed a bit and just concentrate on yourself because it’s really hard, especially when you’re a single mum, you’ve got a kid to look after, it’s really hard to think about yourself.’
In time, Arta also discovered that her mental stress and anxiety had decreased and she started to worry less about things. She sometimes uses the breathing practices in her everyday life and she feels her yoga practice helps give her a sense of control, which is so important given her prior experience of lacking all autonomy over her body and life. ‘(Yoga) is good for your body and for your mind too. It works in both ways.’ Her young daughter also enjoys yoga, so it has given them a healthy activity to share and explore together.
More recently, Arta has developed a painful condition called Fibromyalgia, which leaves her in a great deal of physical pain. On some days, she finds herself unable to rest comfortably in either a standing or sitting position. Thankfully she has been able to find some relief through a sequence of yoga postures, which have been designed specifically for her by one of the OURMALA teachers.
In addition to the health benefits of yoga practice, Arta has found value in the friendships she’s made with other participants and the voluntary staff. She has a sense of connection to the small community. ‘I don’t have anyone in this country and that group, it feels like home, like family. That’s how important is it.’ Due to her life experiences, Arta struggles to trust people but she strongly feels the community that has built up around the weekly practice is a safe and nurturing space, a place where she can talk and express herself freely. ‘...it gives us the strength to understand and know that you are here, you’re in a better place, you’re not in that horrible place that you were.’
Adaeze is a 38-year-old woman from Nigeria, who is an asylum seeker and victim of sexual trafficking. She has been attending the trauma-informed yoga classes at OURMALA for just under twelve months. She dreams of one day returning to her studies to train in the nursing or hospitality industries.
Adaeze didn’t know much about yoga when she first came to OURMALA. She had been suffering with depression, which had manifested as terrible nightmares. In addition, she required medication to treat her depression and was finding daily life very hard to manage. After attending the yoga classes, Adaeze has been overjoyed to experience improvements in her overall well-being, particularly in her mental health. ‘It helps in everything. It helps you to love yourself. It helps your mental state. It helps you to stop worrying. It helps you feel good. It makes you feel confident. It makes you go extra mile to do the things you think you can’t do.’
She grew particularly fond of practicing Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, a posture in which you stand on one leg whilst extending the other forward and hold onto your big toe. This felt like an impossible pose for Adaeze to achieve at first, but she gradually trained her body to reach this goal. ‘If you don’t have that stability you keep losing balance all the time so it needs all the focus and right thinking to do that with concentration. It helps me feel okay.’
Her yoga practice has helped her find a greater sense of balance in the rest of her life too. She has noticed an improvement in her breathing and physical strength, which has enabled her to carry out daily activities with more ease. In addition, she has made strong friendships with the staff at OURMALA and the other women in the classes, finding a safe place to express her worries amongst people who genuinely care about her well-being. She has observed that her mental anguish seems to evaporate during the yoga class and she finds herself leaving with a smile. ‘It gives you hope and makes you believe in yourself and you can achieve whatever you want to and the encouragement and support is there and that’s a beautiful thing.’
Bizhan is a 55-year-old man from Kashmir region of Pakistan who has recently been granted asylum in the UK. He is a survivor of unimaginable torture and has been attending the trauma-informed yoga classes for 6 to 7 months
Bizhan’s left leg has been amputated and he walks using a prosthetic limb. In addition, he suffered terrible pain in his back and in his right leg, which he described as electric shocks traveling through his body. This has since been diagnosed as sciatica. Due to his history of torture, his physical pain and experience of waiting in cramped living conditions awaiting news of his asylum application, he began to fall into a deep depression. In Pakistan, he was kept in a very dark cell, away from sunlight, underground and often hung by his body for hours. The damage to his body from these experiences has been acute. He first came to the yoga classes because he was told the movements might help relieve his physical pain and distressing thoughts. Feeling his muscles stretch, he has also experienced, in his own words, a sense of feeling younger. ‘I feel myself very light and very relax...I feeling fresh after yoga.’
Bizhan used to be a member of the Arsenal disabled football team. He played with crutches but his back pain forced him to leave the activity. He was pleased to discover that through yoga participation he has developed stamina via his breath, he feels stronger and his physical health has improved greatly. His balance has also developed. After 3 or 4 yoga classes he was able to stand on one leg, which for an amputee like himself, is literally life-changing. ‘It is good for your health because you’re physically strong and your breathing is controlled... you can control everything through your breathing.’
Fatima is a 50-year-old woman from Eritrea. She is a refugee who has survived torture. She has been attending the trauma-informed yoga classes for over 1.5 years.
When Fatima first came to OURMALA, she was suffering from severe depression. She spent a great deal of her time crying and found it difficult to sleep. She felt horribly alone in the world and had been prescribed a high dose of antidepressants as well as sleeping pills. Although a very active person in her past, Fatima had never tried yoga before. She had been experiencing knee pain so she wasn’t sure she worried she would not be able to do the postures well. After attending the trauma-informed yoga classes, Fatima has made some great strides in her health. Her knee has improved and she marvels at her ability now to stand on one leg. ‘...before I can’t stand, very difficult stand by one leg even to make my shoes but now I am strong to stand on one leg it is my favorite.’
In addition, she has found the yoga classes give her a sense of calm and relaxation. Her confidence has improved immeasurably: ‘...before I am shy, I’m not talking. I not make friends quickly but now it is easy for me. Big change.’ She is sleeping much better and the dosage of her antidepressant medication was reduced by her doctor. She often practices her yoga at home, especially when suffering a bout of insomnia and she finds the postures and breathing help to settle her.
Perhaps the most fundamental change in Fatima’s life since joining OURMALA’s classes is the sense of community she now feels part of. She says she feels connected to the other women and she has even made a best friend whom she spends time with outside of the classes. ‘
“Yoga is very, very helpful for me...it’s a big deal for me.”
Jaleh s a 30-year-old Iranian woman. She has been attending the trauma-informed yoga classes with OURMALA for 1.5 years, throughout her asylum-seeking process and she has recently been granted refugee status.
The classes at OURMALA were Jaleh’s first experience of yoga. Her first experience in the class was of gentle stretching and breathing exercises. She has experienced multiple surgeries due to her health problems and she has used these same breathing techniques to help her manage her post-surgical pain. ‘(the breathing techniques) help the pain gone. Make me calm, make me relax.’
Before attending the classes she experienced weakness in her legs but she has discovered that yoga has helped her balance improve immeasurably. She now enjoys a standing pose called Vrksasana, or Tree pose, in which you stand strongly on one leg, rooting into the earth, with the other foot positioned against the thigh of the standing leg. She also enjoys Tadasana, or Mountain pose, in which you stand tall, feeling your feet connect deeply with the ground beneath. She feels these poses give her increased confidence and help her feel strong.
“Yes, you feel like a mountain, you are strong, yes.”
Other benefits of yoga she has discovered include an improvement in her sleep and she likes to recreate the feeling at home when she is trying to fall asleep. ‘I feel like I am on a yoga mattress... and then I fall asleep.’ Her ga practice has helped her release tension and anxiety and has brought her a sense of calm. ‘Feeling calm means my mind is more relaxed, more open, because before that my mind is so tight...trapped, like a cage.’ In addition, she has found her appetite has improved and she has made lots of friends in the group, many of whom she meets up with outside of the class. This sense of community and shared experience is extremely important to her.
Following a severe break to her leg several years ago, she wasn’t able to move her toes and her pain was severe. After doing yoga, she can now move her toes, her pain has gone and she no longer requires the injections she used to have nor will she need further surgery. ‘...this is the amazing result of yoga, yes.’
Maria is the mother of a beautiful 4 year old girl from Albania. Maria has been attending the Happy Baby Community since it started in 2013. When Maria first started attending she was struggling with debilitating anxiety, flashbacks and depression. Through regularly participating on our yoga classes and with the support of the group volunteers and other mums, Maria tells us that she is able to take her mind off the other challenges she faces as a single mom as well as an asylum seeker. Maria is a confident and brave parent, and now supports other new mums in the group who are facing similar challenges.
“It is the only place someone asks me how I am.” – Maria
Susan was referred to the Happy Baby Community when she learned that she was expecting her first child. Susan is a refugee who has suffered unimaginable abuse and violence. Before becoming pregnant, Susan was suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms such as anxiety and nightmares. During her first trimester, Susan was terrified and felt completely alone. Susan was welcomed to the Happy Baby Community, she quickly formed friendships with other mothers in the group. Susan also worked with our team where she was provided with support and guidance throughout or pregnancy. Susan continues to attend the group almost every week, where she participates in yoga, English classes while accessing GP, welfare and therapy support. Susan and her children are building a happy and healthy life in the UK with the support of the Happy Baby Community.
“The group is what I needed.” – Susan
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