In Australia, surfing soothes asylum seekers' fears of sea

Published 05.04.2016 23:49

They gather under the blazing sun and blue skies of an Australian beach, looking out at the water that once symbolized so much misery: Terrifying boat trips marked by sickness and death and the constant dread that their own lives might be nearing the end. But today, the sea will become their unlikely savior.

For these five asylum-seekers, a novel program introducing them to the iconic Aussie sport of surfing is helping to transform both their feelings toward the ocean and their lives and allowing them, at least for a brief time, to forget the pains of the past.

"We know that getting into the ocean and surfing makes everybody feel good," says Brenda Miley, surf school director at Let's Go Surfing, which is providing the lessons. "... I just think it's a win-win because it helps build confidence, they learn some skills, they learn about being a local Aussie."

Amin, an asylum-seeker from Iran, flexes his muscles under the neoprene and chuckles. He has been urging his fellow Surfing Without Borders buddies along all morning, eager to get on a surfboard for the first time. But he admits his excitement is tinged with anxiety.

Like the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who have fled to Australia in recent years, Amin's trip involved a harrowing ocean crossing that began in Indonesia, where smugglers pack migrants into rickety boats that frequently break down or capsize. Those who survive the journey are often scarred by it. Amin's memories of that trip and the relentless seasickness that came with it are dark. Today, though, he hopes to forget all that.

Amin eyes the turquoise water, where the swells are gaining strength. He asks how far out they will go. "Not deep," Bigelow assures him.

Finally, it is time to hit the water. The men slide onto their boards and paddle toward a sandbar where the waves are breaking. There, the instructors help maneuver the students' boards into the proper position. And when Amin is ready, Pattinson pushes him forward onto his first wave.

This kind of joy is exactly what the staff at Settlement Services International hoped to achieve when they launched the surf program last year. They knew their clients were grappling not only with the trauma associated with their boat journeys and the wars and persecution they had fled, but also with the anxiety of settling into a new country.

Sandra Oehman, a case manager at the not-for-profit organization and a surfer herself, researched the concept of ocean therapy, which has been used to help everyone from sexual assault survivors to war veterans. Many find that being in the water and focusing their energy on riding the waves produces a calming sensation that helps clear the mind. Maybe, Oehman thought, it could do the same for her clients. Her manager, Robert Shipton, thought it was a brilliant idea. After all, their organization's goal is to help asylum-seekers adapt to their new culture and what could be more Australian than surfing?

The technique worked wonders for the dozen or so participants, who quickly gained confidence and became so enamored with the sport that many of them now surf on their own, using boards donated by locals and the surf school.

Danny, an asylum seeker from Iran who was part of the pilot group, says surfing helped clear his head of the horrors he left behind. "It was very different from my (boat) journey," says Danny, who like the other students spoke on condition that their last names be withheld to protect themselves and loved ones in their home countries.

Back at the beach, Kumar, an asylum-seeker from Sri Lanka, hops off his board after riding a wave into shore. He can't stop grinning. In his former life as a fisherman, he spent a lot of time on the water. But it was nothing like Bondi. "I will never forget this," he says.

"I took a chance in my life," Amin says of his journey to Australia. "I have to win or lose my life. I didn't lose, I win because I was stronger than the ocean." Then, surfboard slung under his arm, he turns and trudges jubilantly back into the sea.

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