“Physical activity through the operation of the gym has greatly improved the daily lives of the men who visit it. Their presence in the gym helps them find a way out of the difficulties they face in their day to day life, to spend their free time creatively and to improve their physical condition” states Vasilis Samiolis a member of the ASB team of teachers at the Diavata long term accommodation site just outside Thessaloniki.
The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, Switzerland) recognizes the potential of exercise and sport as a peace-building measure in refugee camps, and reports have shown that increased physical activity has positive effects on traumatised individuals.
ASB implements an exercise and physical well-being programme as part of Non Formal Education and with the support of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
On a normal day Vasilis Samiolis is responsible for organizing and implementing sports activities in the gym, as well as outdoors activities with children with the rest of the ASB team.
We asked Vasilis why he thinks physical exercise should be an important part of the lives of people living in an accommodation site such as Diavata. Vasilis tells us that “regardless of gender, age and physical condition, regular exercise is important for improving fitness, maintaining a satisfactory level and self-care of each individual. The effort that each individual makes to improve is what should matter and not a comparison of the level of physical condition with other people. This also helps in the psychological field as the person feels better about himself and adopts a healthier lifestyle”.
According to a study associated with the implementation of an exercise and sport intervention program in a Greek Refugee camp, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, regular participation in an 8-week sport and exercise program has the potential to positively impact on a variety of mental health outcomes, including post-traumatic stress symptoms, depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, health-related quality of life, perceived fitness, handgrip strength, and cardiorespiratory fitness.
Vasilis tells us that teenage boys are a very important age group as far as exercise in this context is concerned. Adolescents are “a special age group with many emotional transitions and a lot of energy”, he says adding that some children “due to a lack of things to do” coupled with “the environment in which they live, they often run the risk of being led into a lifestyle that includes bad habits such as smoking, alcohol consumption, violent behaviour and drug use”. When asked how physical exercise helps these teenagers, Vasilis says that not only does it help but that “it is very important for these children to participate in the gym and engage in sports as it helps them to gain an interest, to use their energy and to make sport a part of their daily life. Thus, the chances of acquiring bad habits are significantly reduced and they are more likely to follow a healthy lifestyle in the future”.
Other than the activities that are provided in the gym Vasilis explains that there are also other activities for children which take place in outdoor spaces; “these activities include various educational games with specific educational goals, team sports and individual competitions. Also, there are some specialized sports activities and games that combine physical exercise with what is being taught in the school lessons at the time” he says. He then highlights the fact that “physical exercise is very important for children for both educational and emotional purposes” because he explains “through exercise, children develop skills, socialize, learn to work with other people and strive for a common goal. In addition, they use up their energy, learn to follow the rules, learn to respect teammates and opponents and of course have fun”.
At the moment the gym is for men only but the ASB is aware that physical well-being is also important for women and “there is an intention to create women’s sections [sic. in the gym] in the future” says Vasilis and adds that “women participate in sports activities in another area of the camp, where a Female Friendly Space is allocated”.
Of course like everything else in society both in Greece and worldwide, the operation of the gym has also been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Vasilis clarifies that ASB follows all rules and regulations set by the Greek state and implements all necessary measures; “it is now even more important to follow the health protocol and the rules of hygiene and safety. The gym operates with closed sections where the maximum number of people who can participate according to the available space is 8 people. So on a daily basis there are 25 to 30 people visiting the gym”.
Finally it is important to acknowledge that in sites such as Diavata where there are many different people of different nationalities and cultures living together, a space like the gym helps in bringing these people together, as Vasilis tells us the gym “helps people from different cultures, nationalities and languages connect and communicate through a common interest which is to engage in sports and exercise”.
With the support of ARBEITER-SAMARITER-BUND ÖSTERREICHS
Photo: Giannis Papanikos