The liberating power of sport and yoga for refugees in Greece | future planet

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The ground is soft, the air smells of rubber and disinfectant. “It’s certain, finally on Monday we will be able to reopen the gym here in Athens,” exclaims Estelle, and a smile lights up Ali’s face. “Great. So you have to hurry, everything must be ready. Inventories, registers, sheets, you have to get cabinets and do some work. Ali’s eyes seem to say to others “everything is done, don’t worry” , while they work out some details together.

This is the coordination meeting of the NGO Yoga and Sport with Refugees, whose activity is exactly what its name suggests. The project started in Lesvos at the end of 2017 and was active until September 2020 also in Athens. Ali, Sohaila and Aref, refugees of Afghan origin, are in charge of activities in the Greek capital. Nina, a 26-year-old Dutchwoman, arrived as a running coach and is now at the head of the association with her founder, Estelle, 29 and a native of France. The two young women live in Lesbos and only travel to Athens for regular coordination meetings. Over time, thousands of people who came to Europe in search of a better life via the tragically famous route of Lesvos have taken free courses in more than 25 different disciplines.

Ali, 25, is the logistics coordinator in Athens, and he has revamped the city’s gymnasium. “I love sports,” he says, staring straight ahead with a serene expression. “I started bodybuilding when I was 15 years old, in Iran. Despite the difficulties in Turkey and Lesbos, I always continued”. The young refugee managed to restart the equipment and machines for free training, and even during the confinement, he continued to train with a group of friends who are passionate about bodybuilding.

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The wide avenues of the Pedion Areos central park are full of people. They’ve been where they got K1 training/kick boxingyoga, taekwondo, Parkour, kung fu and zumba even in times of restrictions. Aref brings everything together, and in addition to the delicate task of finding and choosing the monitors, he is also the schedule coordinator. He is 19 years old, comes from Afghanistan and is a taekwondo coach. During training, his students’ kicks accurately hit the target inches from his face. Some are not very good at it, but Aref patiently explains each exercise and follows everyone carefully. He says that now the competitions have been interrupted, “but with the reopening we will be able to compete with other Greek teams”.

Four times a week, Hamid brings together about thirty girls and boys. As a coach, he is tough and strict, but he exudes great energy. He is 30 years old and comes from Afghanistan, although he was born and raised in Iran, where he started practicing kick boxing in 10 years. Since then, he has not stopped fighting and participating in certain international competitions. “Even with the difficulties of the past two years, I have always continued to train and teach. Between Lesbos and Athens we have created a team of kick boxing called Team Energy which trains at the same time in two different places. I came to Europe to fight professionally. And he emphasizes: “Sport is my life”.

Thanks to the financial support she receives from Yoga and Sports with Refugees for her activities within the association, Sohaila can afford a room in Athens. Normally, his family also lives there, but as they have to reapply for their papers, they are now forced to live in the Malsaka camp, located in an isolated area 40 kilometers from the capital. Sohaila often visits them. The train journey takes almost an hour. The Greek government is currently building a large concrete wall around the camp. “It’s a terrible situation,” Sohaila’s mother said as she poured water into the kettle to make tea for the guests. His tent is set up inside what was once the camp’s gymnasium. Now there are several dozen stores and there is no more space.

In a remote corner of Pedion Areos Park, Ehsan teaches kung fu. Among his students is Aresh, a 17-year-old Afghan who has lived in Greece for five years while waiting to join his family in Germany. “When I have free time, I do kung fu. Ehsan is a wonderful teacher and, above all, a great friend.” Aresh wraps his hands and puts on the yellow gloves. refugees and the rest’. We are all people,” he says as he adjusts the closure of his left glove. He has to fight with the coach and in the center of the ring he dodges and punches with force and precision.

In the Zografon athletics stadium, the runners train. The trainer is Morteza, a 19 year old Afghan who started running in Lesbos. “I have already won competitions in Greece,” he says. Morteza aims high and his workouts are demanding, but balanced. After 20 kilometers on the track, he returns home with Nina along Alexandros Avenue at sunset.

The 8.9 kilometers that separate Turkey from Skala Skimaneas, in the north of the island, can last a lifetime

In Lesvos, everyone is watching the screens as Majid and Hamid fight at the Muay Thai Grand Prix in Athens. During the break between games, baked pasta and vegetables are served. The tension is maximum. Both try their best, but both lose. In general discouragement, Nasrullah tries to cheer up: “It’s part of the fight: you win or you lose. Next time we will win.” Mahdi draws a resounding applause. It is Team Energy from Lesbos who train every day under the charismatic leadership of Mahdi, a 28-year-old Afghan. Besides training, the members of the he team spends a lot of time together. Now summer is coming and in the late afternoon they all go to the beach.

The water is crystal clear and on the jetty young people joke, laugh and organize diving competitions, although many cannot swim. His relationship to the sea is stormy. They arrived on the island at night, in precarious boats and under constant threat from Greek and Frontex patrol boats. The 8.9 kilometers that separate Turkey from Skala Skimaneas, in the north of the island, can last a lifetime. The sea also partly borders the only currently occupied camp on Lesvos, called Mavrovouni, but known as Moria 2.0 due to the inhuman conditions in which its inhabitants live. In this sector, there is no barbed wire; only the sea and Turkey, from where all the occupants of the installations came, trapped on the edge of the abyss.

Yoga classes take place at the end of the day and are open to all

In an alley between other barracks and close to the field is the Yoga and Sport gym. “Often you have to insist on being able to get out of the camp for a few hours and when you arrive at the center of Mytilene, the police always search you,” complains Nabiullah, who has been working as a volunteer for a few weeks and stresses how important it is to meet other people “so as not to go crazy”. Nabiullah spends most of his time at the gym. This young Afghan likes to climb, box from time to time and above all run together while keeping the gym in order. “We decided not to work in the camp because doing activities outside allows people to get out of this place and its dynamics”, argues Nina. “At first, we only had one store,” adds Estelle. “Then we found this warehouse. The walls were completely black with smoke. We worked hard to turn it into a gym.

At 8:30 am, the sports center is already open. Aziz, 24, from Congo, is the strength trainer. Afghan veterans and young Congolese alternate on the bars, benches and training machines. Everyone does their own exercise program. Aziz calmly watches the room, gives advice and checks that everything is working well.

Yoga classes take place at the end of the day and are open to everyone. “Yoga is not very common in Afghanistan,” says Zakhi. “When I arrived at the camp, I was sick and had lost the will to everything. So I went to a class and found serenity. That’s why I teach yoga, because I think it can be good for everyone, especially here.” Zakhi, 20, and Yadullah, 23, both Afghans, take turns in the gym as teachers The two share the house they live in in Mytilene with Aziz and other trainers.

Zahkhi and Yadullah also participate with Masume, Abbas and Mohammad, all Afghans, in the theater group they set up in Lesbos. Every day the running team offers different training sessions and routes through the mountains and villages, near the Moria camp, by the sea, and back to the gymnasium. Covered by the profile of the mountain, the tents of Mavrovouni are no longer visible and, for a moment, the camp seems distant.

In the dry air charged with the aromas of the vegetation and under the blazing sun, running on the stones of the slopes becomes more difficult. But you run in a group and no one is left behind; the fastest back up to encourage those who get tired. By running together we can think that it is possible to move away from the problems, all the objectives seem attainable, even that of a world without borders.

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