From Tustin to Turkey: Local woman teaches yoga to Syrian refugees

From Tustin to Turkey: Local woman teaches yoga to Syrian refugeesimage

15 May 2015

Carla Henson has taught yoga in Orange County for nearly a decade, but she has never taught a class quite like this one.

Carpet scraps padded a narrow outdoor space, squeezed between two high buildings. Curious neighbors peaked over a graffitied block wall as the sound of bouncing basketballs and excited cries in Arabic echoed off the concrete all around.

But in that narrow space, Henson had the full attention of a dozen junior high boys. These boys, who’ve encountered more carnage and loss in their short lives than most people will ever know, took turns imitating the warrior poses demonstrated by this redhead from the other side of the world.

“I taught them what it is like to be a peaceful warrior – not one that fights, but one who goes for your dreams,” Henson said. “And I shared it was my dream to be there with them.”

Henson and 40 more volunteers recently spent a week in southern Turkey working with children who’ve been made refugees by the ongoing civil war in Syria.

The volunteers traveled to Reyhanli, Turkey, from around the world, brought together by the Chicago-based Karam Foundation. It was the nonprofit’s fifth trip to serve children displaced along the Syrian-Turkish border, with this mission focused on holistic healing and reminding the children they’re not forgotten.

A dentist and ophthalmologist, art and writing teachers, soccer and basketball coaches all spent the last week of April at the new Jeel School for Syrian refugees, working with 350 students in grades 1-8.

“I want these children to feel what it feels like to have a calm mind, especially with all that is chaotic around them,” Henson said of Turkey. “And to focus and learn breathing techniques to allow the body to be in more of a rest state than the constant feeling of this flight or fight response.”

Henson has been a dancer all her life, performing as she grew up in Chino Hills and earning her bachelor’s degree in dance from Cal State Fullerton. In 2006, she got certified to teach yoga.

With the cooperation with Kinda Hibrawi, cofounder of Karam Foundation’s Zeitouna program, taking teams of volunteers twice a year to serve Syrian refugees. It was decided to do the trip and bring yoga to children.

The volunteers were told not to ask the kids about their past, which can often be traumatic to relive. But Henson caught glimpses of their pain as she did breathing, stretching and posture exercises with them.

As she taught animal poses, with students using their arms to form elephant trunks, Henson had them imagine bathing themselves in joy. She asked what else they could bathe themselves in, recalling, “They said, ‘Excellence!’ ‘Love!’ One said, ‘Syrian sand.’ And one boy said, ‘Blood.’”

“All of these kids are at a really distinct tipping point,” Hibrawi said. “And if we don’t get to them, someone else will.”