Refugee Women's Fitness

by Operation Mercy
Refugee Women's Fitness
Refugee Women's Fitness
Refugee Women's Fitness
Refugee Women's Fitness
Refugee Women's Fitness
Refugee Women's Fitness
Refugee Women's Fitness
Refugee Women's Fitness
Refugee Women's Fitness
Refugee Women's Fitness
Sharing time after a fitness session
Sharing time after a fitness session

After a break for Ramadan, the month of fasting in the Muslim world, our fitness classes have resumed once again. One of the ladies attending our classes and staying to connect with others after class is Dunia*.

Dunia heard about our fitness classes through a neighbor. She was not doing well emotionally, her husband was and still is in prison, and she has been childless. Her husband at first did not permit her to leave her house a lot.

When she started coming six months ago, she did not really connect with others and was hesitant to share her story. However, as a result of the encouragement from the fitness instructors to share and engage, she opened up and started to connect with the other women. Dunia started to change and make friends and exercise, sometimes even helping to lead the group from the front. Her relationship with her husband improved, he now permits her to leave the house more to go to fitness and also connect with friends and she is eagerly waiting for him to come home.


*name changed

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We continue to meet three times a week to exercise with a group of Syrian Refugee women. Exercising provides them with an opportunity to not just become more fit and healthy physically, but also provides an opportunity to step away from the stress of living in a Refugee Camp.

After class, the women often sit down together and share something from their lives, with our staff asking them questions.

One time the question was: “What are you most worried about in life?” Many ladies responded and shared how they worry about their children, schooling, work, finances and their relatives affected by the security situation in Syria. At the end our project coordinator was able to encourage people not to worry about things they cannot change. They all felt better, even just by being able to share and to hear from each other.

Another time they were asked “Who in your life are you most grateful for?”. Going around in a circle everyone shared the name of a person or people that they are thankful for and why. Often these were parents or other family members, but the women also named fellow participants who have become friends as well as the fitness instructors for being there for them. Our staff encouraged everyone to reach out to the people they named and actually tell them how thankful they are for them.

In addition to exercise, practicing thankfulness and letting go of worry really make an impact on people’s emotional wellbeing and the level of anxiety they experience.

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Sharing life
Sharing life

What was your weakest moment in life?

“When my father died. There’s this saying, that the father is the rock, the strong tower and support of the family. I realized, that’s true.”
“Being and feeling foreign in a foreign land. You don’t belong. You feel lost.”
“When I saw my mother crying.”
“When I wasn’t able to help.”
“When I wasn’t able to catch up at school.”

Since a few months we started to have small gatherings after our fitness classes, to talk about one deep question and sharing each other’s pain and joy. The fitness trainers wanted to give it a try and then we were all surprised, how from the first moment the women poured out their hearts, being really honest, with quite often tears running down their faces, comforting and encouraging each other. “I need to go to the fitness classes, in order to have a place where I can really open up my heart and let go.” That’s what we get as a feedback quite frequently. And one lady just recently shared at a visit, that she was angry and upset at home, being stressed and shouting at her kids. So her little boy eventually said: “Mom, please go to fitness! Every time when you return from fitness, you are nicer and less angry with us.” She started to laugh and she confirmed to us: “That’s what’s happening in the classes. You get help for your body, your soul and your mind.”

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Not alone
Not alone

“One of my relatives in Syria disappeared on his way home and we haven’t heard from him in days! He just visited his uncle and wanted to be back for dinner.” With tears in her eyes Hevin* came to our fitness project. “He’s only 14!” she added. Immediately the women surrounded her in compassion, also in shock. “Sadly, that’s happening quite often these days” I was told by one of them. All of us were troubled, as we gathered to comfort Hevin. After thanking her for sharing her heart with us, she said: “I needed to come. I don’t have any other place like this, where I can share and people really care.” The other women were nodding. Many of them started to come to the fitness classes, because they wanted to lose weight and realizing then, that that was just the initial reason, but they also found a loving community of friends, they can share with and being together on this way.

Very often that’s the most powerful thing we as humans can do for each other. To show each other our vulnerability and realizing, we’re are not alone in this. There are others and I’m seen. That’s what happens again and again in our project, that the Syrian women of the camp experience a place where people really care and share. Losing weight might be one of the main reasons why they start to come, but why they actually stay and continue to come is the hope and the community they get.

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Pictured together are Sawson* and Fatima* who became friends through fitness classes, getting their temperatures taken as well as using hand sanitizer. Due to new strands of Covid-19, our women’s fitness class continues to wear masks and limit the number of participants. After trying splitting the class into two groups each having class for 2 days a week we have decided to rejoin the class into one group as the participants really felt more benefit from consistent exercise three days a week.

In Middle Eastern culture people can be blunt especially regarding someone’s looks or weight. Unfortunately these 26 year old twin sisters, Nuhad* and Jamela* were always told they were fat and unattractive. A few years ago they started coming to our fitness classes and felt really encouraged that they were beautiful that their actions and lives mattered. Around a year and a half ago, their mother tragically passed away. During the time of mourning, other participants, fitness leaders, and project coordinators came to visit their family and encourage them. Both Nuhad and Jamela felt supported, that they were genuinely cared for that we shared in their sorrow in the midst of this difficult circumstance. Due to the closeness of their relationship with their mother, culturally these girls mourned for a year not going out even to a fitness class. Now the twins have been excited to be able to again join the fitness classes and see their friends who supported them through their grief.

Previously Shireen* was isolated and lonely in her house and wouldn’t go out much. Through fitness she has found more purpose in life and has become confident and content in all she does: whether cleaning, cooking, or caring for her children. The friends Shireen has made through fitness classes have inspired her to return to her passion for acting. Now she is often acting in films and TV dramas! Some neighbors have told Shireen she doesn’t need to go to fitness class anymore as she has lost weight and is thin. Yet she wants to attend fitness because of the purpose she feels and the encouragement she receives. While she also walks, Shireen hopes that women’s fitness project will continue as it is a safe place for women to meet and encourage each other.

*Not the participants real names.

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Organization Information

Operation Mercy

Location: Orebro - Sweden
Facebook: Facebook Page
Project Leader:
Maarten de Wolf
Orebro , Sweden

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Combined with other sources of funding, this project raised enough money to fund the outlined activities and is no longer accepting donations.

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