Fatemeh Jafari: Letting Go of the Refugee Label, Finding Yoga


Content note: This article includes descriptions of trauma and self-harm. 

Fatemeh Jafari is a vibrant 23-year-old Iranian who fled her country for Greece in 2019, seeking a better life. She was born in Tehran, but her family is originally from Afghanistan, and according to Fatemeh, there is widespread, systemic discrimination against Afghans in Iran, which made it very difficult for her to advance in higher education there, let alone find any employment other than low-wage work.

This, combined with restrictions on her freedom from culture and family, led her to have thoughts of leaving Iran one day. She watched helplessly as her younger sister was married off against her will to an older religious man, and Fatemeh knew it was time. She then made the very difficult decision to hire a smuggler to help her out of Iran, which involved traversing the rugged mountainous terrain overland to Turkey and then taking a boat to the Greek island of Lesvos, where thousands of migrants had landed before her.

UNHCR estimates that close to one million people have passed through Lesvos since 2015. But this is not a story about that harrowing journey or the overall frustration, injustice, and broken dreams inherent in the refugee struggle. Instead, it is a story about Fatemeh’s self-discovery through yoga and how this catapulted her out of the dead end of one life into the beginnings of another.

One thing you notice about Fatemeh when you first meet her is her huge, luminous smile. It lights up her entire face and radiates out to whoever has the privilege of being with her. Interviewing her was a gift, a reminder that even in these dark and unprecedented times, miracles are happening all around us.

My hope in sharing her story is that it will touch you the same way.

When did you first discover yoga? 

I first knew about yoga in Iran, where I was part of Omid Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization that helps young women like myself overcome trauma. We had sessions with psychologists and did artwork and photography, and I first learned to meditate. This helped me a lot, as I was suffering from violence in my family. We were refugees from Afghanistan living in Iran, and it was very difficult for us there. This was the first time I could find some peace inside me. I was so troubled, as my sister was about to be forced to marry an older man she didn’t like.

I never considered myself a refugee or vulnerable person. I’ve always been strong, but when I went to Omid, it was really the first time I felt this strength deep within me. We did more meditation here than yoga [asana], however. I knew what [asana] was, I just didn’t know much about it.

Can you describe the early days of your practice and what it meant to you?

I continued my yoga practice when I came to Greece in 2019. I made a crazy journey from Iran to Turkey and then across the Aegean Sea to Greece, where I landed on the island of Lesvos, to the largest refugee camp in Europe, the notorious Moría Camp. There were already nearly 20,000 refugees living in this camp that was originally built to hold 4,000.

Those days were a nightmare, but also full of joy and surprises. I remember waking up and being able to see the sea, above all those thousands of people crammed together. I came with my little brother and a friend and her husband. We all shared a tent and had to queue for hours for food and the toilets (one toilet for 200 people, imagine!), but I started going to a gym outside the camp that was founded by Yoga and Sport for Refugees. I was also a gymnast back in Iran, so I went there to work out and then started practicing yoga three times a week.

If it wasn’t for this place and my practice, I would not have survived living in Moría. For a young woman there it was especially scary. There was no safety, as lots of fights broke out between various ethnic groups. Food shortages, the cold, babies sitting and crying in mud puddles—it was too much. At night you wouldn’t dare go to the bathroom, because you never knew if someone would grab you and harm you, and you couldn’t go to the police if something happened, because they treated you like you were the problem, and most of them only spoke Greek.

It was impossible for them to see you as human; to them you were just another refugee.

The gym was five kilometers away, and even on that trip through the olive groves I was constantly worried for my safety. But I started to get to know the young men going there, and they protected me. I think because I was the only girl going to the gym regularly, people in the camp also started to respect me.

You know, there were people in this refugee camp who had been stuck there for two to three years, waiting for their asylum papers, and I would see them going mad. Just losing it. I was feeling this myself at times, and I was determined not to slide in that direction. When I practiced yoga it gave me a way to stay sane.

How did you decide to become a yoga teacher, and what was the process like for you?

I never thought I would become a yoga teacher. I never set out to do so. I was also going to English classes to improve my English, and my teacher there told me there was a teacher coming from France to do a yoga teacher training for refugees, and I had been chosen! I think it was because of my English, not my yoga! So I was eagerly waiting for this teacher to come, but it got delayed. I eventually got my papers to get off the island and come to Athens. I heard that the training was going to happen in June, and I didn’t want to leave Athens and go backward. Lesvos was not really a great place for me. But then [the] corona [virus] happened, and it was delayed even more. I had time to think, and heal.

In Athens, I share a small apartment with my brother, friend, and her husband, and I would just do it [yoga] in the living room in the evenings. Through Zoom, I was able to follow online classes that Yoga and Sport for Refugees were doing. I really started to improve and feel like yoga was helping me transform.

Athens is a huge, crowded, and chaotic city. I have heard it referred to as an anarchist city, and it can be very alienating. I started missing the sea and the gym back in Lesvos. It was a smaller community on the island. I think I sank into a depression, and yoga and meditation really helped me during this time. I started studying a little on my own, using YouTube, the class called “Yoga for Complete Beginners” by Yoga with Adriene. So then when they called me and told me the teacher training was back on in Lesvos, I realized this was something I really wanted to do. So I went. I arrived on August 9 and the class started. There were 20 students taking the training, nine refugees, including men and women, and eleven were other volunteers from all over the world who had worked and lived on Lesvos, many of them through various NGOS.

This teacher training was like touching happiness for me daily—we were not just doing a yoga teacher training, we became a family. There were no labels. No one was a Danish girl or an Afghan refugee, when we did yoga; we talked about the history of yoga and how it teaches unity. I never felt part of a family before. Then, in the middle of our training, the entire camp of Moría burned to the ground. The fire happened in the middle of the night—I got a text from friends I still had in the camp. Some say it was refugees that started the fire, because they were responding to the first case of COVID-19 that had been discovered and they knew there was no protection, not even masks, yet they had been told by the authorities the camp would be locked down. How could people socially distance inside that place? Others say it was Greeks from a right-wing faction, starting the fire from outside, to make it look like refugees had done it.

Eventually police arrested four refugee suspects. It didn’t matter to me who started it, what mattered is, I had friends there, and I was devastated.

I felt so hopeless, as I was staying outside in the nearby town of Mytilene, and there was nothing I could do. Everything was destroyed. The police blocked the roads. It was even difficult for journalists to get to the thousands of people who were now homeless, camping outside in the raw, in the open, with what little they had saved from the fire. All our books and mats were in the gym where we were training. Thankfully the gym did not burn. We heard people had no food or water, so the yoga volunteers started hiking over a mountain to get to the gym, where we sheltered 40 people and their families. I didn’t dare go with them, for fear of the police, even though I had papers to be outside the camp.

The next day my fellow trainees and I got together at one of the volunteers’ houses and sat in a meditation circle. I couldn’t stop crying. Everything was coming out of me. All my feelings about that camp, my past. I had such a feeling of love and power in that circle surrounded by my new family. We shared our feelings and uncertainty, but we all agreed to continue the training. Each morning we discussed how we would manage, where we would train, moving from apartment to apartment.

I eventually got my certificate for 200 hours, and I felt, with all of the things happening around me, it was like a miracle. I knew I wanted to take what I learned back to Athens and start teaching right away. It was like I had also gone through a fire, burning away all my self-doubt and stress and instability. I found my way through this training. I found my purpose.

What do you want to do with your teacher training?

My dream is to have a studio in the popular immigrant neighborhoods in Athens where there are none.

I want to teach how to overcome the specific traumas that refugees, especially refugee women, experience, through yoga. I see yoga as a survival skill. I want to teach this to the hundreds of people that have crossed my path on my journey to now. There is serious untreated trauma I see all around me, a lot of drug use, anger, shouting, people with nothing to do as their time is spent waiting for the next chapter of their lives to begin. Many refugees see Greece as a holding place, on their way to somewhere better. I want to teach in my classes about being in the present and embracing what is good now in your life. There is so much suffering, people can’t accept it, so they find ways to ignore it, but yoga can help them come back to their bodies, themselves, to their real selves. They can let go of the label “refugee” and grow.

[I believe that] it doesn’t matter where you are, you can endure anything if you find a way to embrace it deeply. Not to escape it. This is what yoga did for me and what I want to pass on in my classes. You know, in Iran and in Greece, I could say, “I am trapped or there is no future, no university that will take me, no job, no income.” But I found yoga and it propelled me forward, but at the same time grounded me right here where I am.

I am in no rush to get to the next thing, the next phase. I am here. And you know what? I think every refugee’s biggest annoyance is this waiting. Endless lines, waiting for your life to begin. But what happens in the meantime?

I walk through Athens and I see so many smiles. I don’t judge people if they don’t smile at me. In the camp I never smiled. I would develop so much stress and hate. I look differently outside and around me now. It’s weird for me, when someone is rude to me or calls me a name because of my nationality or refugee status, I want to just give them a smile in return. I just want to give without expecting anything in return.

How do you practice yoga yourself, and what is it you are working on specifically?

Because of my background in gymnastics I was always very flexible, but I want to get stronger. I like practicing handstands and headstands and holding poses for long periods of time. I love hatha yoga because of this, and the discipline it teaches. I am working on my meditations, breathing. Always coming back to a center. I like to think of when we are born and taking our first breath, and when we die taking our last breath. Yoga is this first “birth breath” for me, bringing awareness. I know there is so much more I can learn about the breath. I think of my childhood back in Iran, living under a very strict religion and difficult father. I was always holding my breath. I never really learned how to breathe.

Like many girls there,  hated being [a] ]girl and what was expected of [me]. Many of us began to cut ourselves, bringing pain to our bodies because we were made to feel shame for who we were. Now I can explore my body with love, honoring it and learning, through yoga, to push myself gently to an edge, but never to feel that kind of pain again.

What is your biggest challenge right now?

I would say my biggest challenge is becoming a citizen, either here in Greece, or another country. To be a legal member of a society and not an outcast or reject. I still don’t have an interview date with the immigration authorities here, so I don’t even know if I will be allowed to stay in Europe. This will take time for my papers and permission to live here, but it also will take time for the overall integration.

Many Greeks are tired of so many refugees coming here, and they have become hostile. I want to work with this emotion as well, and maybe get to know Greek people one-on-one as they get to know me. Perhaps in my classes. So I don’t want to just teach refugees as if they are some sort of specialized group requiring separate treatment.

It is also a challenge to provide an income for myself and my family back in Iran. I am now the guardian for my younger brother here, who is in high school, and he needs my time. In the Afghan and Persian community, yoga is not widely understood, and many people see exercise as martial arts or boxing, an aggressive thing. They don’t take the classes seriously, they laugh when I teach and make fun of me sometimes, they don’t know how it can help them. It’s not easy at all. This will take time.

I really love to teach, and I want to be an ambassador for yoga and to show how strength and power can be something else.

Any message you would like to share with the international yoga community?

Yoga means a lot more to me than posting a picture on Instagram and showing off, doing advanced poses. I want the international yoga community to respect me and those of us who come from places where it might not be so easy to become a teacher. I know I still have a lot to learn and I am just starting out as a teacher, but I have faith that my experience can inspire others.

About the Teacher

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Amie Williams
Amie is a documentary filmmaker and journalist, and the co-founder of GlobalGirl Media, a non-profit... Read more