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Refugees get fit

Women Get Active, the first of its kind in Wales, is more than just an exercise routine.

What a typical Women Get Active class looks like.

What a typical Women Get Active class looks like.

The plastic flooring of the high-ceilinged gym glistens as the sunlight finds its way through the blinds. The room is filled with at least twenty women, in hijabs or perfectly coiffed weaves, standing on purple rubber mats with their arms akimbo.

“They’re a great bunch of ladies. It’s great having a full class here in Cardiff. I’ve taught other communities but not many people attended. There would be four, five, or just even one,” says June Campbell-Davies, the fitness instructor of the Women Get Active program.

While she has been teaching movement and dance across Wales for over a decade, she has never taught specifically for female refugees and asylum seekers, as this project is the first of its kind in the country.

The creche on the other side of the YMCA gym where the female refugees can leave their children.

The creche on the other side of the YMCA gym where the female refugees can leave their children.

The Women Get Active project is an on-going 12-month pilot program by the Welsh Refugee Council, which is aimed for female asylum seekers and refugees to increase their fitness regimen and for them to have access to local sports.

The council has found that there was a gap in health and fitness programs for refugees, specifically for women. As there are more male refugees in Cardiff, it is easier for these men to form sports groups within their communities, leaving the females behind.

Julie Green, the founding coordinator of the Women Get Active program, says: “A lot of asylum seekers who would come over are around 70 percent male, so the women often get ignored.

“That’s when I realized that something was really wanted and needed. As I spoke to the women, I said ‘hey, what about having a health and well-being program?’ and they thought it was fantastic.”

Green got the idea together and then put it in Sport Wales as a funding bid as she thought that the organisation was a good match for what the council wanted to do.

“They’ve got this £25,000  development grants and the amount of money worked with what I was thinking and I thought that they were an excellent organization to get involved in,” adds Green.

The women refugees stretching and bending on purple mats.

The women refugees stretching and bending on purple mats.

Other than the program being a way to stretch a muscle, lose weight, or tone up, it has also helped the refugees in coping with mental health problems, especially depression. As most of these women have had traumatic experiences, coming into a new country and building a community is extremely challenging.

“It helps them to relieve stress. One lady said to me that she felt so much better since starting in September. She’s going to see her doctor because she’s on medication right now but she thinks the classes have helped her more than the medication, so she’s going to try to stop taking them,” says Andree Andrews, project coordinator of Women Get Active.

According to Andrews, the surveys the council runs with the refugees also revealed that the fitness program not only gave them an activity where they can reduce personal anxieties, it has also helped them in gaining a sense of belonging.

Even when this is exclusively for refugees and asylum seekers, she also pointed out that the demand of the project is so great that the council has decided to welcome anyone who is interested.

“We’ve had women come who are not asylum seekers or refugees and have asked if they can sign up for the class. We charge them £4 a session or £10 a week and then that money will go back to the project to buy things that the project needs.”

Because the women mix and mingle in a social setting, the feeling of being part of a community becomes an even more powerful overriding factor that makes them continuously go back to this program.

Maysaa Mohyialdeen, a Syrian refugee, lights up when talking about the project. She shares how she has never felt like an outsider in Cardiff particularly because of the people she has met through Women Get Active. “Dealing with people here is very easy. If you go as a Muslim to some countries, you feel you are not accepted. Here, I feel that everybody is the same.”

What began as a project that was only catering to 32 female refugees grew to 62 women—all strong, hopeful women who have found solace in opening their purple rubber mats, stretching their limbs, and reaching for their toes.