How martial arts classes are empowering young people in a Jesuit Refugee Service camp in South Sudan
At 8:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in Maban County, South Sudan, 40 refugee young women, aged 15 to 25, enter the Doro Recreational Center run by Jesuit Refugee Service. In a pavilion-like structure with a sand floor, they follow the directions of instructor Isaac Auyub. He coaches the young women through warm-up stretches and movements, some jabs, a few deep breaths, then training begins.
South Sudan has the largest displacement crisis in Africa. Over 2.2 million people have fled the nation, and an additional 1.6 million are internally displaced. The Doro Refugee Camp in Maban hosts over 13,000 households representing mainly Uduk, Burun, Dawala, Funj, Jumjum, Nuba and Ragarik people.
Mr. Auyub is from the Blue Nile State in Sudan, but in 2011, after violence forced him to leave home, he lived in Ethiopia for seven years. In Ethiopia, a friend invited him to a martial arts class, and Mr. Auyub developed a passion for the practice. Martial arts and acrobats became “a way of keeping [his] life,” he says, strengthening both his physical body and emotional intelligence.
South Sudan has the largest displacement crisis in Africa. Over 2.2 million people have fled the nation, and an additional 1.6 million are internally displaced.
Mr. Auyub now instills that strength in his students from the Doro refugee community. Having trained in Ethiopia for three years, Mr. Auyub’s talent was easily identified by Maban’s J.R.S. program directors as they developed an extracurricular program for refugee students in 2018. As a member of the Doro community, Mr. Auyub had a keen understanding of what his people needed: outlets for physical activity and emotional support.
His martial arts program serves over 250 members of the Doro refugee community. Young women train on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; young men train on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Olivier Mugawenza, a mental health and psychosocial support specialist at the J.R.S. center in Maban, says the program helps students build relationships, harness physical strength and control their emotions. He sees these qualities as necessary elements in building a hopeful future for people experiencing displacement.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated one million children were born to refugees from 2018 to 2020. Having spent their entire lives without a country to call home, Mr. Mugawenza says many children in the camp struggle with their sense of self-worth and belonging. But inside the Doro Recreational Center, students relate to one another’s experiences and build a sense of “togetherness,” Mr. Mugawenza says. “They don’t feel so alone.”
The martial arts program includes students from 64 different African communities who reside in the Doro Refugee Camp. If it were not for the recreational program, Mr. Mugawenza says, these students would have little interaction with one another as the communities tend to keep to themselves. Uniting the students has enriched their mental and social well being and expanded their support networks and worldviews.
“[If] you grow healthy and strong...you can help your community later,” Mr. Auyub says. His goal is to create future leaders in the refugee community.
Mr. Auyub helps his students build confidence by encouraging self-expression in their movements. He says this helps refugee students gain a sense of worth and identity that is otherwise difficult to realize amid the daily unknowns of life as a refugee.
Mr. Auyub helps his students build confidence by encouraging self-expression in their movements.
The morning martial arts class ends shortly before noon, marked by a final breathing exercise. The young women then travel together to attend school for the rest of the day, switching places with the afternoon class.
But the recreational program is more than a martial arts class. Mr. Auyub and five other J.R.S.-trained instructors help the students with communication skills, character development and, when they are not limited by social distancing measures, mindfulness exercises like meditation. During the students’ time at the center, they work in small groups to build interpersonal skills, including how to interact with authority and how to respect differing opinions.
Mr. Auyub says that the emotional and physical skills taught at the Doro Recreational Center help keep students from desolation and acting on negative feelings. “When they stay angry, they [participate in self-sabotaging behavior] like smoking and drinking alcohol,” he says. But when the students “learn to control their bodies and minds,” they are able to channel their emotions and change their mindsets.
Katie Mullins, the senior mental health and psychosocial support specialist for J.R.S., explained that having experienced the trauma of fleeing their home countries, many students struggle with mental health issues. “They are having normal reactions,” she says, noting that they have witnessed heinous acts of violence. Many lost loved ones while fleeing their homes.
“Kids have the right to play,” Ms. Mullins says. But refugee children are particularly vulnerable to abuse, poverty and mental health issues that often limit their ability to engage in fun and games. J.R.S. has implemented a five-day intensive training workshop to train refugee community leaders to help their students cope with emotional trauma and stress through activities like drawing and dancing. By training established leaders and teachers in the refugee communities, J.R.S. creates sustainable programs that are maintained and uplifted by refugees.
Mr. Auyub also says frequent young marriages in the refugee community are detrimental to his students’ development and ability to engage in play. Young women are forced to have children when “their wombs [are] not wide enough,” and young men are ill-equipped to raise a family or support their wives. His martial arts program works to preserve their youth by educating the students on how to be leaders, to value their education and to wait until they are ready to have a family.
Noticing when community members are especially struggling with their mental health is integral in promoting the overall psychosocial wellbeing of a refugee community, Ms. Mullins says. But identifying the members of a refugee community who are suffering the most is often difficult for outside volunteers, staff and organizations as cultural, religious and language barriers can create miscommunication and distrust. This is why, Ms. Mullins says, refugee community leaders are key in helping those experiencing distress.
“I go to the community and see who needs help,” Mr. Auyub says, glad that so many people in the Doro community recognize him as a friendly face. He frequently spends time with his students outside of the martial arts class and takes the time to identify those who might need extra support. When he notices these individuals, Mr. Auyub invites them to join or just observe his program. He works to create a space where they can take their mind off of any troubling situations “and be happy.”
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