Physical self-conception in the case of displaced children

Physical Self-conception in the Case of Displaced Children

This article proposes a short overview on the benefits that body movement and sports can offer for contributing to rehabilitation of displaced children. After considering diverse aspects of traumas caused by displacement in children, I will give accounts from experiences of working on body movement with children in different cases, trying to frame general common conclusions from them. This article aims at providing basis for engaging community work on the field of body movement in case of displacement. The Network of Sport and Body Movement for Vulnerable Groups (BoMoVu) works for the introduction of such practices in Turkey’s social work practices.

Traumas and shifts in behaviours of immigrants are highly interchangeable according to the path and the events witnessed from the decision to leave a place, to the journey, and finally the welcoming at destination. However, some patterns mostly appear in all cases in terms of acculturation and marginalization from the society in the host country. Moreover, in the case of displaced children, experts detect a series of traumas and health problems. Main traumas assessed for displaced children in the case of the Syrian war in Jordanian camps are “persistent fear, anger, lack of interest in activities, hopelessness and problems with basic functioning”[1]. Doctor Amer Shafik describes the situation as such: “I feel we have a really big problem with the children coming from Syria. [The] Assad regime destroyed everything in Syria. Destroyed the body, the emotions, everything.”[2] In Turkey also, children fleeing the Syrian war have been exposed to traumatic events that left on them mental health problems, symptoms of post-traumatic health disorder, symptoms of depression, and psychosomatic problems.[3]

However, most of those traumas are due to war and violent conflict witnessed. But the traumas inflicted solely by migration or displacement itself are also considerable. “Young infants can develop insecure, ambivalent, or disorganized attachment; their lack of basic trust in their surroundings can result in negative effects in their exploratory behaviour and autonomy, which may be reflected in disorganized behaviour. Older children and adolescents may present increased externalized aggressive behaviour and/or internalized anxiety and depressive behaviour.”[4]

At the light of this information, I would like to attempt to establish a link between the definition of migration as the movement of the body from one space to another, and exploring the patterns of how a child defines her own existence in the space through her body. My argument is that migration, the changing of space, the movement of the body from one known and familiar place to a different, unknown, foreign one has also impacts on the definition of one’s own body in space. When mobility is both forced and reduced by unbearable living conditions on one side (caused by global economic inequalities, wars, conflicts…) and mortal migration policies and practices on the other side (European and American migration policies), the body is stranded in a space that bears new complexities for human psychology, and translates into diverse body behaviours. Leaving aside social pressures on bodies of individuals in general, the uprooting of a body also inflicts physical shifts in self-definition of body; in other words, the tangible representation of life, in space.

Taking from my own field work, when implementing physical activities with unaccompanied migrant children who suffered uprooting from space and social surrounding (mainly the family, and in physical contact forms, mainly the mother) in Turkey; it is important to take in account another dimension of children’s trauma. Along with the loss of friends and peers during the journey, children who arrived to Istanbul also many times suffered physical torture in the hands of smugglers; some children lost members such as a hand or fingers, some others have deep scars on their body made with sharp or burning instruments. Thus at first, the contact with the trainer is difficult because of the shame that comes from displaying atrophied body. We made the experience with a female trainer, which had a positive impact on the all-boys group we worked with. This may be due to the fact that the comparison that the child builds between himself and the example that the trainer embodies is not on a level of manhood and competition when working with a female trainer. Her body is and “should be” different from mine because of a clear gender distinction that operates in the mind of most adolescent boys living among each other. Another positive aspect about the gender of the trainer was detected amongst younger boys (8 to 10 years old) who seem to directly build a sort of mother-to-son relationship with the trainer. Finally, the sport chosen, Muay Thai boxing, to work with unaccompanied migrant boys also had beneficial effects because of the self-defence skills and psychological empowerment it provided.

Another experience about implementing physical activities with displaced children took place in Turkey’s Eastern region city of Şanlıurfa, in a community centre where Syrian and local children were provided with social and educational activities together. A capoeira workshop was organized there with two trainers, one male and one female trainer, while the children were also from both genders. Capoeira is both a martial art but also a dance, which invites the practitioners to build a dialogue around the concepts of fight and violence. Children in Şanlıurfa were mostly accompanied by their family or an adult morally responsible for them and their traumas were more linked to being exposed to war violence and being uprooted, along with poverty and other related collateral damages on health. Children benefiting from the capoeira workshop could enjoy the practice of a physical activity that is not gendered, as displayed by the trainers who enacted equal status. But moreover, rendering the idea of violence into a playful communicative practice, provided children with an alternative on the way of visualizing their own past experience. Inviting children to play roles in a violent game, they were given the opportunity to redefine it through new paradigms of aesthetics, control over the body movements of aggression, and an ethical framework of respect and care. At the same time, being practiced with chanting and playing music, children were enabled the expression through diverse means; body movement, body rhythms, voice.

In both of the examples cited about the use of sport to reach out to displaced children who went through different life experiences, and given common patterns of trauma they suffer in the host country being Turkey in this case, we can conclude about some benefits of physical activities in general. When provided with a physical activity, children are asked to gain awareness about their physical presence in space, with others, in an environment. This awareness starts with acknowledging the body they have, with the physical traumas they went through, and working with that body is a start of self-acceptance and self-conception. Emerging from the idea that this is who I am and my body can perform those actions; a certain well-being can be reached with the enhancement of movements that never fails along with the practice. Also, children are offered to reach to abilities they might not be aware about themselves. The sense of self-conception of their own presence, through their body, in the new space they operate into, can thus be proposed to displaced children when offered sport activities through different means according to the activity and the way those are offered.

In conclusion, physical self-conception can be reached for displaced children through the medium of sport and body movement when used purposefully and in full knowledge of the special needs of displaced children.

Nil Delahaye


Nil Delahaye studied Turcologia and Hausa at INALCO, language didactics at Rouen University, and cultural management at Bilgi University. She uses capoeira as a tool for social empowerment in her work at the BoMoVu initiative she founded. Her work focuses on developing programs that address specific needs for displaced children and women.


Photo credit: Servet Dilber – Support to Life  – 2014

[1] Leah James, Annie Sovcik, Ferdinand Garoff and Reem Abbasi, The mental health of Syrian refugee children and adolescents, 2014, The Syria crisis, displacement and protection, FMR 47,

[2] Tala Hadavi, Rehabilitation for Syrian Children Traumatized by War, 2014, Voice of America,

[3]Serap Özer, Selçuk Şirin, Brit Oppedal, Bahçeşehir Study of Syrian Refugee Children in Turkey,

[4] Elizabeth Batista-Pinto Wiese, Culture and Migration: Psychological Trauma in Children and Adolescents, Traumatology December 2010 vol. 16 no. 4 142-152


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