Author Archives: Eoin

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Running stress away…the benefits of exercise

In this article, Rachael – an avid exercise enthusiast, tells us about some of the proven benefits of regular exercise and how she hopes to help young refugees by sharing her passion with them.

If there’s one thing that keeps me focussed and improves my mood, it’s exercise. I practise yoga most days, love a long morning run and enjoy trying new forms of exercise whenever I can.

But it hasn’t always been this way. I hated sports at school, I loathed the annual cross country run and constantly found excuses to skip athletics and swimming. It was only when I left school and exercise wasn’t an obligation that I realised how beneficial, life-affirming and downright fun it could be.

So when I learnt that I would be moving to Greece to assist in refugee shelters, I was very keen to share my enthusiasm for exercise with the migrants, and to explore the benefits that exercise can bring to this marginalised and vulnerable group.

Everyone knows that exercise is good for your physical health – it goes without saying that it strengthens muscles and improves cardiovascular function. One obvious benefit of focusing on sports and exercise with refugees is helping to maintain physical health as well as facilitating control over this part of a migrants’ life, when many aspects of their life may feel out of their personal control.

Research into mental health supports the idea that exercise can be a useful tool for a healthy mind as well as a healthy body. Jasper Smits, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas says “exercise has been shown to have tremendous benefits for mental health” and, particularly relevant for our work with migrants, “exercise can fill the gap for people who can’t receive traditional therapies because of cost or lack of access”. Of course this isn’t to say that exercise can replace therapy, but that it can have its own therapeutic benefits.

Such well-researched benefits of exercise can include helping us sleep better, releasing endorphins to create feelings of happiness, boosting memory thanks to an increase in learning cells produced in the brain during exercise, alleviating anxiety and moderating the body’s response to stress. And it isn’t just when exercising that these effects take place, getting the heart pumping in just a 30 minute workout can produce benefit-bringing chemicals in the brain when the body is at rest too, particularly the handling of the body’s stress response.

It seems like an obvious solution, to encourage the migrants we will be working with to practise regular exercise. But why facilitate group exercise sessions? Research has shown that people perform better on aerobic tests when they are working with others, so they tend to work harder and give up less easily. Working in a group can even increase our tolerance to pain. Another clear benefit of working out together, even if there is no competitive element, is that it encourages teamwork and mutual support. One issue that can arise in the refugee shelters we are working in is division and conflict between those with different nationalities, languages and cultures. Activities that do not rely on a common language, such as sports, can be a key way of breaking down these barriers and encouraging teamwork.

There are multiple proven benefits to exercise beyond the physical. Empowering the migrant to take control of their health, establishing relationships outside of the bounds of language and culture and the stress-relieving chemical effects on the brain are just a few. My personal goal is to help some of the refugees we will be working to become inspired by exercise, as I have been, and that our work will do a little better than the sports lessons I took in school in encouraging regular exercise as a way of life.

We will keep you updated on any sporty success stories that we achieve over the next year: watch this space!


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I came to the UK as an immigrant. Now I’m volunteering in Greece to help others in the same situation

At age six, Usaama Kaweesa moved with his family to the UK from his native Uganda. As an immigrant leaving a country of extreme poverty, the refugee cause is one that’s always been close to his heart. He tells us why he’s spending a year volunteering in Greece with the British Red Cross and Scouts of Greece.

 

 

The refugee crisis is important to me because as an immigrant I feel an affinity with those who have been forced to give up their homes to seek safety and a better life elsewhere in the world.

While I’ve never been a refugee myself, I was born in Uganda, one of the world’s poorest countries. I immigrated to the UK with my parents when I was just six years old.

I’m not going to pretend my experience is the same as that of the vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people fleeing war, persecution and humanitarian disasters.

But as an immigrant myself, I have a huge amount of empathy for anyone who has to make the same journey. Naturally, I wanted to contribute towards a project that welcomes young people in this situation.

I was lucky when I arrived in the UK to be welcomed with the chance at a full education as well as every opportunity to succeed and integrate into European society. Unfortunately this is not the case for many young refugees today, who shamefully have to fight for their basic human rights at almost every stage of their journey.

I joined this project because I wanted to encourage the public and governments in Europe to be more respectful and open towards refugees and migrants. There’s no disguising the fact that the integration of refugees into Europe has not gone as smoothly as many of us would have hoped.

Instead, xenophobia and intolerance are on the rise across the continent.

We’re all familiar with the scare stories about asylum seekers ‘flooding’ the UK. In Greece, resentment has been fuelled by the fact that the country is taking in huge numbers of refugees while simultaneously facing their worst economic crisis in modern times.

But it’s really important that despite all that’s going on around us we show public support for refugees. Hostility or even indifference only exacerbates the problem.

For me, volunteering in Greece is about preparing the young refugees, who choose to settle here, for a smooth integration into our European society, as well as helping to prepare local communities to welcome those refugees and new migrants with positivity rather than with xenophobia.

It’s not an easy task but that’s how you change hearts and minds over time.

Another reason I put myself forward for this project is because the scale of the refugee crisis is far too big for any of us to ignore.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency there are estimated to be over 60 million people throughout the world forced to flee their homes. Among them are more than 21 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

But while developing countries host almost nine in ten refugees, last year more than a million arrived in Europe – mainly through Greece and Italy.

No matter how you see the situation, it is apparent that we cannot look away if we are committed to creating a more equal, just and peaceful world.

That’s why as part of this year-long project we’re committed to supporting the welcoming of unaccompanied migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and helping with their integration through the use of non-formal education on the subjects that are important to them like languages and vital life skills.

These are the reasons that propelled me to volunteer in Greece. But above all, I would not be here without my previous overseas experience on the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme.

Before I volunteered with ICS, I used to think that addressing issues like global poverty, injustice and inequality were all too big for one person to solve. And especially by someone like me.

But through seeing first-hand the impact our work had on the local community, I learned that while an individual might not be able to solve these big issues alone, we can collectively have an impact that can create a ripple effect. The same is true for our response to the refugee crisis.

Sure – it’s no small feat, and there is much work to be done, but my past experiences have shown me that it is doable. There are so many organisations out there that are looking for volunteers.

But just in case you’re still cynical about your capacity to make a difference, take a moment to remember what 1960s American anthropologist Margaret Mead once famously said on change:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world … indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”


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Introducing young refugees in Athens to the work and style of #VincentVanGogh through our engaging painting workshop! #time2Bwelcome #erasmusplus

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On #SolidarityDay and every day, we stand together with refugees, sharing skills and welcoming them into the European community #scouts #erasmusplus #messengersofpeace #refugeeswelcome

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Happy #InternationalMigrantsDay8 from the team in Athens. We’re spending today delivering language lessons to the young migrants we work with here to help them feel more welcome in Europe. #time2Bwelcome #erasmusplus #messengersofpeace twitter.com/scoutingeurope…