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Using Yoga to deal with traumatized children

By Andreas Risbjerg

Last weekend, 15 girls, aged between 12 to 15 years from all over the occupied West Bank, have been assembled at a yoga-workshop in Beit Jala. What all these minor girls had in common is that they have all been imprisoned by the IOF.

In the town of Beit Jala, a short ride from downtown Bethlehem lies Beit Shams; a yoga-centre devoted to enhancing the wellbeing of anybody willing to join the classes. A few months ago yogi and co-founder Eilda Zaghmout was contacted by Issa Souf, who had a slightly different request. Souf wanted to create a yoga workshop for young girls, all of which had been imprisoned by the IOF during the period of exacerbated violence all over the West Bank popularly known as the ‘knife intifada.’

Zaghmout tells: “Issa (Souf) contacted me and asked if I was interested in creating a workshop for these girls, to help tackle a trauma early in their lives and provide a sort of relief for them.” Although the normal visitors in Beit Shams are regular Palestinians seeking welfare through yoga, meditation and exercises, Zaghmout is not new in working with kids with a trauma.

A few years ago, Zaghmout organized workshops in Jordan for children with cancer.

“Negative memories are stored in the body. A traumatic experience can create a gap between the mind, the body and the soul, yoga and meditation can be a tool to close that gap again.” 

Testimonies from former inmates describe the unbearable conditions Palestinian prisoners are subject to in Israeli prisons, conditionsthat might lead to a trauma, especially if the inmate is a minor.

Souf and Zaghmout both noticed that the girls all were very quiet and cautious when they first arrived at theBeit Shams’ centre.

“One girls’ parents came to visit a day. The girl kept peeking out of the curtains in the room we were having a session in, to make sure they were still there, that she wouldn’t be separated from them suddenly again.” Zaghmout explained, before moving on to how the girls’ traumas were visible in the yoga classes. “They had this stiffness in their bodies, they were not in contact with themselves, or with the moment, both of which are extremely important in yoga. In one class I put music on and asked the girls to move around, as they liked, when I stopped the music several of them kept walking. That was how much they weren’t in contact with themself or the moment. Their minds were some many other places.”

Traumatizing experiences aren’t foreign to organizer Issa Souf. During the second intifada, Israeli forces shot him when he went to warn his family of the IOF invading their village. The bullet hit his spine, resulting in Souf being maimed in the lower 2/3’s of his body. Souf himself used yoga and physical exercise to combat this trauma, both in his own village in the Tulkarem area andand in the Plum Village (a yoga and meditation centre) in southern France. Souf decided to see if others could enjoy some of the benefits from yoga he had experienced.

“Through some other activities, I was in contact with some girls that were arrested in the fall/winter last year. I discussed my idea of a workshop for the girls, with people from Plum Village, and they offered to fund the workshop.” With the economy in order the workshop could become a reality.

Many of the girls were in Israeli prisons subject to brutal treatment, pressed with charges they were innocent in, when they were released they were welcomed home as heroines, something that made grasping of their time in prison difficult. Or as Souf puts it the last day of the workshop: “We hope we have made a hole in the wall between the girls and the society. We hope we have brought them closer back to normal life, back to their families.”

Already now Souf and Zaghmout are discussing the possibilities of a continuation of the program in some way, with funding being a top priority. “I think we have reached some results, but we have only scratched the surface, there is still a lot of work to be done with these girls.” Zaghmout tells.

According to B’tselem around 100 minors under 16 were in Israeli custody in the year 2015.

In August, the Israeli parliament approved a new law allowing Palestinian children, whom they called “terrorists”, as young as 12 to be jailed, in which courts will be allowed to postpone prison transfers and shorten or cancel jail sentences as part of the legislation, which called for a “more aggressive approach”.

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