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Soul Fitness

By Ben Cohen | 24 Oct 2016

One of Tearfund’s partner organisations in Amman, Jordan has been running exercise classes for refugee men from Iraq and Syria. It’s been a big hit and brought some surprising benefits with it...

Walid, the coach is affectionately known as ‘the Captain’ by his keep fit class. What he lacks in expensive gym equipment he makes up for with a huge dose of enthusiasm.

The ethos of his classes revolves around teamwork, camaraderie and encouragement. Participants range from a three-year-old boy to a man in his 70s. In the corner of the room a prosthetic leg is propped against the wall as its owner joins in with the exercises on his knees. There is a joyful atmosphere and it is easy to forget, that this is a room full of men broken by their experiences of war and persecution.

Many who have come with their families to Jordan, struggle with depression. Few of them are able to find work, and they are often dealing with trauma from the conflict they have fled from. All this has a knock-on effect, with high levels of domestic violence occurring among refugee families.

The class in full swing

Walid's class in full swing

'Even though I have many problems in my body and I’m sick, this helps me to forget everything.'
Ghassan
Hassan and grandson

Hassan and grandson Khalil.

Soul food

Ghassan is 52 and a refugee from Iraq. He attends with his three-year-old grandson Khalil. Back in Iraq he was mistaken for a terrorist suspect, arrested and tortured. 

‘These classes have given all of the participants self confidence and to have hope in life. 

‘There are other organisations that support us with food. It is important, but for me food is not more important than my soul. I come here, I forget, and this helps me to be more at peace.’

Walid knows he is providing much more than food. ‘Each week we have a subject to talk about first,’ he explains. ‘It’s mainly about values. We talk about honesty, we talk about commitment, self-discipline, and all the people accept that. After that, I will give them some exercises, we will play some games for learning self-discipline.’

‘My wife said to me, if these classes are every day, I’d like you to go every day!
Suleiman
Suleiman

Suleiman

No more Mr 'high maintenance' 

With the men unable to find work, it’s easy for them to lose all motivation, so this emphasis on discipline and taking control of your life clearly hits home. 51 year-old Suleiman, a farmer from Homs in Syria says it has made a big impact.

‘This past two or three weeks that I’ve started attended the classes, I’ve changed more than the whole three years that I’ve been here in Jordan! This is also helping me psychologically, because if you’re staying at home, after two days you are are just staying put, and it will make you more lazy.

‘My wife said to me, if these classes are every day, I’d like you to go every day! Before she was asking me, "can you please get something from the supermarket?" I would say, “no I can’t.” Now I go, I carry things to the house, and I exercise at home.’

Ghassan’s wife also approves of her fitter, more motivated husband, as he explains: ‘I’m more at peace now, I have more self confidence, I’m more relaxed. My wife told me, you’re not so high maintenance now! ‘

Talk to any of the men about their former lives and what they have escaped and you can quickly see how much they have gone through. Ghassan wells up as he talks about his old job, his arrest and torture and the disappearance of his son in law – presumed dead.

‘When I talk about it I feel pain. Even though I have many problems in my body and I’m sick, this helps me to forget everything. I don’t even remember the problems I have, because the coach is like my brother, he’s seriously like my brother, and it helps me to get better.’

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Photo of Ben Cohen

Written by Ben Cohen