Miracles of mindfulness; working with women refugees

Julia Powell writes about her recent humbling experience co-leading mindfulness for groups of women refugees, asylum seekers and migrants…

Lana Jackson and I have just finished co-leading our second ten-week mindfulness course for women refugees. We’ve been using the trauma-informed Mindfulness Across Borders curriculum developed by Ariana Faris and Sheila Webb and funded by the Oxford Mindfulness Foundation. The initiative is part of the Sussex Mindfulness Centre’s effort to reach underrepresented communities.

With Lana’s encouragement and enthusiasm for eco-therapy, we ran this second course outdoors, in a secluded garden in Stanmer Park, Brighton. The setting was perfect. We had a fire circle with logs to sit on, and were sheltered under a parachute that was draped over trees, in case it rained.

At first, it was a challenge to attract participants to what may be an alien concept in some cultures. In the promotional material we minimised ‘mindfulness’ and highlighted the benefits articulated by previous participants of courses in Cardiff and London. Following lots of support from local refugee organisations, both courses were eventually oversubscribed.

We earned the confidence of the women participants early on by responding to their needs and adapting the curriculum accordingly. For example, as many of the women are dealing with high levels of anxiety they requested more mindful movement. Physical activity at the beginning of each session helped them feel more grounded, and more able to participate in the rest of the session. Realising that they were co-creators in the course created trust, a sense of belonging and ownership.

We kept the venues secret to protect our participants from the sorts of hate crimes that recent arrivals to the UK have been subject to. Many of the participants will have left war or persecution behind them, and some may have faced hostility in their new host communities. Many live in poor temporary accommodation, with lives on hold as they await long-delayed decisions on asylum applications and are prohibited from working in the meantime. As I write, I am contacted by one distressed former participant who, with her husband and children fears imminent eviction.

So, in the face of such adversity you may wonder how mindfulness could possibly help? Obviously, our programme doesn’t address urgent and practical challenges like becoming homeless. And in such cases, of course it is necessary to ‘do’ something. Not simply ‘be’ with the uncertainty.

But, an excellent example of the power of mindfulness came a few weeks ago. One participant woke up to discover rain pouring through her ceiling into her bedroom during the recent heavy rains. Water flooded into all of the rooms of her small flat. She got a sudden rush of emotion as she realised what was happening. Then she remembered the ‘breathing space’ learnt in previous sessions. She actually referred to the little credit card-sized prompt we had given her. She took a breathing space, remained calm, alerted the landlord, and phoned a friend. She gathered herself up, left the disaster that was her home and came to our weekly session in the park, albeit a little late!

We were very pleasantly surprised by the wholehearted engagement of the women, right from the start. The insights they shared showed how much they learned. Participants talked about the value of the programme.

“Mindfulness is sunrise because it’s like a new day, it’s hope, it’s clear.”

Woman on the mindfulness course

Another participant said:

“When I do mindfulness, I feel like I’m flying. It’s very powerful, like flying, you feel like you can run, you can learn.”

Several women said they felt more confident, finding ways to be alongside difficulties, and learning to appreciate the little things, the sun and the breeze. Women talked about being more in tune with their bodies, more connected, more accepting. One participant recognised that pain in her body was specific and localised, and that the rest of her body felt fine. This was a revelation and released her from the idea that she was in pain.

Love was a recurring theme in our one-word feedback at the end of the sessions. And the sense of connection, community and solidarity with others was ever present.

I felt humbled to be with these women who have such challenging lives, who somehow carved out a little time for learning something entirely new, and for being open to the little miracles of mindfulness.

Many thanks to interns, Susie Myszynska and Georgia Sawyer, for all their dedicated support with the sessions. Also thanks to Ariana Faris who provided hugely insightful and helpful supervision.