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A Breath of Fresh Hope for Women in Haiti’s Tent Camps

Port-au-Prince Haiti, March 13, 2010

AMURTEL Haiti (www.amurtelhaiti.org), is the women-managed wing of AMURT, which has been working in the country since 1998 as a registered NGO.  Their mission  is to improve the quality of life for disadvantaged women and children, and provide  relief  in natural and man-made disasters. AMURTEL particularly focuses on creating empowering and long term sustainable strategies for holistic community development. In response to the devastating earthquake that hit Port au Prince January 12, 2010, AMURTEL has partnered with several other agencies to offer life-saving services and resources to 14 refugee camps in the surrounding neighborhoods of Jobel and Lavale Bourdon, Port Au Prince, serving 10,444 displaced people. Global Grassroots partnered with AMURTEL to offer a trauma healing workshop in Coherent Breathing to women displaced by the earthquake. The following was written by Didi Ananda Deva Priya, one of the female monks working with AMURTEL in Haiti.

With quick efficiency, the camp committee in the Sitron camp announced our arrival for a women’s gathering. Soon the women were spreading  large grey tarps on the bare ground, and to our surprise, a microphone and amplifier were waiting in the middle of the space. I was amazed to see that already the camp had wired electric lines throughout the site, and indeed, a bulb was shining in a hut on the hill. Two months have now passed since the earthquake, and people have begun to settle and adapt to the circumstances with characteristic resilience. The construction of latrines was nearing completion, and groups of men were busy chopping poles to construct a large community tent for clinics, meetings, religious services and other collective events.

As the women began gathering, it seemed at first, that there would be plenty of space to do the deep relaxation exercises and yoga that the AMURTEL team had planned together with our partners from Global Grassroots. It would be a new experience for both Gretchen, from Global Grassroots, who has worked facilitating women’s trauma recovery for survivors of the Rwandan genocide, as well as for  the Didis from AMURTEL who have years of experience as meditation and yoga instructors. Soon the space on the tarps were completely packed with at least 150 women and girls of all ages, and even the men in the camp had gathered around in interest. Plans were quickly improvised to adapt to the tight space.

Gretchen opened the gathering by explaining the normal reactions to a stressful event such as the earthquake. As she described common experiences, such as trembling, difficulties with sleep, racing heartbeat, over-sensitivity to certain sounds, hyper-alertness, and more, the women began nodding empathically and eagerly joined in discussion, sharing their own experiences vividly. They all expressed great relief at discovering that they were not sick, but rather having a normal reaction to an abnormal event. They listened with keen interest as Gretchen described how the stress regulating system in our bodies, intended to help us survive trauma, can remain stuck “on”, in ways that become unhealthy. Then she led the group in a series of breathing exercises, followed by the Didis who led some loosening warmups, yoga exercises (in the end, just one standing up posture suitable to the cramped conditions). The yoga sequence ended with a self massage, which they enjoyed immensely, and by then the initially giggly and noisy group had settled down into a calm and open feeling. This was followed by a session of relaxation, with slow, regular, timed breathing designed to awaken a relaxation response and turn the stress system “off”. The women were elated to share how they felt lighter, rested, and hopeful that they would be able to return to normal again with techniques which were simple and easy to remember for practicing on their own.  The session ended with singing on a joyful, uplifting note. An elderly man approached one of our native Haitian volunteers, and expressed how grateful he was that we were sharing this for free – he understood how important it was for their healing, and that they would not have normally been able to afford access to such techniques. The singing continued echoing from the hills  even as we walked out of the camp.

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