Tackling mental health issues of refugee children through sport
World Mental Health Day, marked on October 10, is a day to reflect on the challenges refugee children face everyday; but especially in terms of their mental health.
This day is also an important opportunity to focus our thoughts on the positive impact that sport plays on the wellbeing of these children. Children like Ahmed, who are the victims of a war that is creating a’ lost generation’.
Ahmed*, 15, lost his home to a bombing, and was forced to flee Syria over three long months, finally making it to Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan. He now has a boxer’s nose. It was broken by one of the many soldiers he met on his route out of Syria. He has a hard time focusing on anything besides his recent experiences and hardships. Currently, he is not attending school and his goal in life is to return to Syria and join the fight as soon as he can.
Like Ahmed, thousands of refugee children have experienced horrific violence and loss. Currently, there are around 60 million refugees globally and half of them are children. They are marked for life by their war experiences, and this can particularly be seen in terms of their mental wellness.
Behaviours presented by many refugee children as a result of their traumas include: aggression, inability to concentrate or focus, nightmares, bedwetting, withdrawal, and nervousness. Children’s ability to study, and learn can be severely impaired affecting their mental and physical development as well as their ability to be independent and empowered adults who can help rebuild their devastated nations.
Apart from experiencing the loss of a family member and loved ones, refugee children end up in new countries where their lives are highly unstable. Access to education can be difficult. For example, in Turkey, although the government provides free education to Syrian refugees, they are expected to speak some Turkish. A different education system and years of missing school also has a severely detrimental impact on children trying to catch-up. Many teachers are not trained to deal with the specific educational and mental health needs of refugee children.
These children are desperately in need of mental health support but when funding is scare, and systems are overloaded with trying to deal with a refugee crisis, such care generally takes a backseat.
In this context, sport can and does play a vital role in creating safe spaces, and attracting children to come together, learn and deal with their past experiences. Capoeira, a sport and art form that combines live music, sport, and dance, is an ideal way to increase the mental wellbeing of children who otherwise would have few other ways of working through their traumas.
Sport-based programmes are essential to the long-term wellbeing of refugee children, as well as to the long-term prospects of the war-affected countries.
According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), half of all Syrian refugee children display signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. In a region where attitudes to mental health are ruled by stigma, its even more difficult to openly access services.
Capoeira4Refugees has designed a specific programme to work in contexts where communities are fractured. Our methodology is designed to meet the needs of vulnerable groups, who live in violent or unsafe environments, and who suffer from a variety of mental health issues as a result.
The live music and sport of capoeira provides an invaluable release for these children. Through the practice of this sport, children can release their frustrations and anger, and learn new ways of dealing with the daily stresses in their lives.
Mental health is also intrinsically linked to physical health. For instance, music and movement, which have proven to be effective mechanisms in supporting the development of new neural pathways, can help to overcome some of the symptoms of trauma.
Ahmed found friends through capoeira. Capoeira is, crucially, fun, and attractive, and he found the motivation to show up on time, and regularly attend the classes. His ability to focus and learn improved drastically. He is enthusiastic and passionate about this activity. And it gives him hope, helping him to focus on a different future to that of one of violence and war.
Refugees face systematic problems in their daily lives: lack of employment, violence, crime, and exploitation. Hope is crucial in helping communities to keep active in finding solutions and creating a better future for themselves. Sport provides fun, friends and hope, balm to the spirit – essential in stopping cycles of violence that will see Syria continue to have more lost generations of children.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in Peace and Sport Watch are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Peace and Sport.
Name changed to protect his identity*