The ancient Indian practice of yoga and transcendental meditation is providing solace to hundreds of Syrians stuck in a desert by the Jordan border.
Scattered all over the mounds of sand, malnourished Syrian refugees live in tents made of tarpaulin and timber, eat baked eggplant stuffed with rice. When there is no eggplant, the refugees live solely on flour and water.
Everyone prays five times a day in a makeshift masjid. Children play I-Spy. Some make castles out of tuna boxes donated by Western travellers, and fortify them with rocks.
Some of the children attend schools run by aid workers in Amman. During a random question call, the bulk of the children say they want to be doctors, others teachers or engineers who could build bridges. Only a fraction of them say they would like to be soldiers.
A common thread binds them: A bridge build by an engineer can help people escape a war, the injured can be treated by doctors, teachers can visit classes — their schools in Syria were mostly without teachers — and soldiers can guard them from death.
Tahan Ali, 45, a Jordanian volunteer, said the preferences of the children reflect their traumatised lives. “They cannot think of anything else… like becoming a manager of a firm, or a writer, even entrepreneurs. Safety is uppermost in their minds.”
Some children take the help of a translator to share horror stories of how they escaped the war with their parents, who sold everything they had at home to raise cash for cabs to the border.
And three times a week, the refugees spread yoga mats to attend classes conducted by volunteers from the International Association of Human Values (IAHV), a humanitarian organisation.
Nearby, armed soldiers stand guard and frisk everyone for valid documents. The camps, claim IAHV volunteers, conduct yoga and meditation sessions to beat stress. Soothing music from portable speakers wafts across the room as the refugees try out various asanas. There are some who give up almost instantly, only to be pushed back on track by the volunteers.
“These programmes incorporate art, movement, and mindful yoga,” says Christian Matta, an IAHV trainer.
He says yoga and meditation are the only answer to beat stress in the camps, especially over the refugees’ uncertain future. “They do not know when they will return to their homes; they know their homes have been reduced to rubble, that they will continue to live in one of the world’s most volatile zones where death is routine,” says Matta.
IAHV, set up by Indian spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, aims to provide the refugees relaxation and social support while also reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The situation is depressing. Preliminary results of various studies to determine the mental health impact of civil war trauma on Syrian refugees indicate that 30 percent of adults experience post-traumatic stress disorder, and 50 percent experience depression. Worse, nearly 70 percent of Syrian children show signs of high anxiety because of the trauma.
The ones undergoing the courses are lucky, those unable to cross the border are living in hell.
Jordan sealed its northern and eastern borders after six soldiers were killed in June last year in a suicide bombing outside a Syrian refugee camp in Rukban, on the isolated desert border with Syria.
Now, everything is stuck.
There is no movement, no aid for thousands of Syrian refugees stranded on the frontier. Approximately 50,000 people are believed to be in Rukban and other camps in no man’s land, stranded between the borders as they await entry to Jordan.
They live in an increasingly unsafe area where air attacks are reported every now and then.
Jordan admits an average of 50-100 people per day, giving priority to the elderly, sick and injured. Early this year, Jordan’s King Abdullah had warned there were Islamic State elements among the refugees, explaining the risks to his small and vulnerable country of the war raging next door without any prospect of it ending in the foreseeable future.
Jordan is hosting nearly 1.4 million Syrian refugees, of whom 6,30,000 are registered with the UN. The refugees are a massive strain on the kingdom’s economy and resources, as well as security concerns.
The children always build walls during play. Safety is their uppermost concern ever since they left their severely bombed homes, and crossed over to start a new life. Scorpions and rats run all over the place, there is no water. The noon day heat soars a little above 100 degrees.
Abdallah, 7, loves to build a home every day. He uses tuna boxes, and rocks. “No one will attack us,” he says in broken Arabic. Standing next to him, Alejandra Susarrey and Farah Alfayes of the International Association of Human Values (IAHV) say such situations emerge out of terrible crises, and mostly impact children. A fourth of all the children suffer from acute diarrhoea, three-fourths of them are malnourished. There is no access to lifesaving medicines.
Those in the camps consider themselves lucky — they were able to cross the border. Their homes destroyed, they covered themselves in blankets and paid all the ready cash they had to hire rickety cabs and drive to the border.
Meharaba Amin, 56, a mother of eight, says she knows members of her family have no option but to continue living in the camps on the monthly $300 UN dole. Worse, there are chances the dole could soon stop because of financial compulsions.
She wept bitterly when asked whether she celebrated Eid this year. “We haven’t for more than three years now.”
Najeeb, 81, paralysed from the waist down, says he has given up hopes of returning home. “I watch people do these exercises (yoga and meditation) for peace and remember how peaceful we were at our homes.”
Many do not have access to regular food or medicine. Water trucks reach her only twice a week. Members of Doctors Without Borders, working along with other humanitarian groups in the area, say a refugee — on an average — gets a 1.5-litre bottle of water every week and has to make do with such a woefully limited supply.
Jordan’s southern border with Syria is an increasingly unsafe area, air strikes are common. Some of the refugees have tried to return to their home in Syria, rather than risking deprivation in an inhospitable desert. UN agencies, worried about the plight of the refugees, have urged all parties to the conflict to take necessary steps to prevent further harm to the frightened and highly vulnerable individuals stranded at the border.
A little over 3,00,000 people have died ever since the war broke out in 2011. Benoit De Gryse, operations manager of Doctors Without Borders, says the plight of the refugees could seriously worsen if more food and essentials do not arrive soon. “We could look at some serious starvation deaths… The yoga and meditation camps help them counter fatigue and helplessness.”
Suleiman, 61, says he has not heard of India, nor transcendental meditation and yoga. But he attends the yoga classes conducted by the volunteers. He feels a great deal of hope emerging in him after every yoga session. But seconds later, he breaks into a paroxysm of sobbing, saying in broken Arabic: “Is this all life has in store for me? Will I not ever return to my home and tend my beautiful kitchen garden?”
He says to survive in Syria one must be a soldier, because it’s virtually impossible to live as a civilian. “The army teaches you to kill, and if you are unlucky, then you get killed. That’s all that is happening in Syria.”
Aid agencies are negotiating with the Jordanian government for additional access because the borders are sealed, only limited movement is permitted. And it is not easy to send aid; the aid workers have fallen silent because they lack the moral authority to blame Jordan when so many Western nations have refused to take in Syrians and others fleeing the conflict. On paper, international law demands that Jordan let in people fleeing from the war zones. But Jordan faces a real security concern, as seen in last year’s suicide bombing.
“The refugees are here because other nations are not giving them any options to resettle. What is sad is that Jordan cannot be doing it alone, it has already 650,000 refugees. This has to be a collective, global responsibility,” says De Gryse. Else, he says it would be called the world’s biggest, collective failure.
At the camps, the refugees continue their daily drill. Some dig to bury garbage, some fix electric wires, some wash clothes in the open because the water tankers have come after over three weeks. All want to pack up en masse and leave, only to be reminded by Jordanian officials that their old homes are either destroyed or unsafe, and the fighting and bombing are far from over.
“They will remain here for some more time, they are not going anywhere,” says Matta.
The refugees still live in the hope that one day the big powers would stop the metastasis of the Syrian crisis. If there is an outright government victory, Syria then could be declared safe for return. The refugees also know that the move may not necessarily resolve the political issues that triggered the conflict, including the alleged human rights violations by the Syrian government.
Almost all refugee families in the camps in Jordan have lost one member who went missing after being arrested or forcibly drafted by the government. The refugees said they care little about whether Assad stays or leaves. All they want is a reform of the security system and an end to torture, disappearances and arbitrary arrests.
The dream of returning home is, actually, that of their next generation which will make the war-torn Syria vanish, and make it a new Syria. “Our lives are virtually over, we will die right here in this desert,” says Mahaboob Khaaled, 71, a father of five.
The sun’s about to set, the muezzin has called for the day’s last prayers. Abdullah leads the pack, leaving his makeshift home of tuna boxes, surrounded by small rocks.
He is not worried now, he knows soldiers also took a break during the war. There would be no firing. He exhorts me to repeat after him: “Bismillah Rehman Ey Rahim, Allah U Akbar, Allah U Akbar, Allah U Akbar.”
One more day of pain and lost hope has elapsed at the camps. Soon, rodents and scorpions will emerge from their homes to scurry across the desert.
This story by Shantanu Gura Ray was first reported here