Fighting bullets with yoga

Fighting bullets with yoga

Once a banker, now an Art of Living trainer, UAE-based Mawahib Al Shaibani talks about working with victims of war and trauma - and helping them find peace


Karen Ann Monsy

Published: Mon 2 Jan 2017, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 10 Jan 2017, 2:04 PM

In 2014, when 10,000s of Iraqi Yazidis were stranded on Mount Sinjar after Daesh forces had cut off all access - and escape - Emirati national Mawahib Al Shaibani had volunteered to be part of the emergency relief operations that were airdropping supplies to the besieged victims. Such was her single-mindedness in getting help across that, at one point during the helicopter ride, she turned to the captain and commented on the "nice fireworks" going on underneath. "Those are not fireworks," came the surprised reply. "They're Daesh missiles trying to bring us down."
People laugh when she tells that story now but Mawahib recalls how, back then, she'd quickly "turned around and read all the prayers" she could that they'd reach the mountain safely. "It didn't sink in for me that it was war, because I wasn't focusing on the war - I was focused on saving lives."
It's this thought that has carried her through the years, ever since she started working to provide trauma relief in war-torn areas like Iraq and Syria in 2003 (her first trip to volunteer in Iraq involved a 15-hour drive from Jordan to Baghdad with only another female colleague for company; "that was an adventure!" she laughs). But Mawahib's life wasn't always about helping people in need. Prior to her current role as a trainer with Art of Living, she had worked as one of the first female brokers in the UAE, back in 1997 - a very stressful job that involved 15-hour days and where "every second meant a couple of million bucks". Plus, due to the lack of women in the field, she felt all the more pressured to prove she was as capable of the job as her male counterparts.
Then a friend introduced her to an Art of Living course in 2000. When she asked him what she would be learning, he said: breathing. "Breathing?" she shot back. "I know how to breathe already, why do I need to learn this?" But the course transformed her life completely,  and she decided to go on a sabbatical for a month. which turned into six months until finally she quit. "I never went back," she laughs.

Mawahib and a colleague airdropping relief supplies to Sinjar Mountains
Now, her mission is to spread peace by teaching victims of war and trauma how to find it within themselves. Her method for battling the effects of bullets and bombs? Yoga and meditative techniques. As Director of the Iraqi chapter of International Association for Human Values, Mawahib says she is in charge of the programme for 15 countries in the Middle East. In other words, though she's based in Abu Dhabi, she's never in the country - or in one place - for very long, choosing instead to constantly travel and teach the organisation's various 'Happiness' and empowerment programmes to people from all walks of life. "I work with prisoners and drug addicts, refugees and government leaders. I go wherever I can be useful," she says.
Most recently, her team completed 450 'Happiness' courses in Kurdistan in October as well as the first yoga marathon in Iraq last August. The three-hour 'yogathon' is a milestone she is especially proud of. "We've held the event in over 50 countries in the last five years, but this year was the first time in 100 years that we were able to do it in Iraq," she notes, happily.
But there is much work left to do, she says. "The message of peace is difficult to get across when peace isn't even on people's minds. There isn't a single person in the camps who hasn't lost a loved one or lost everything they own, save for the clothes they wear. It's really sad because these are refugees who thought they'd be away from their homes for a couple of months and could return when the fighting ceased - but it's going to be more than two-and-a-half years now for many of them." It's why Mawahib and her team work so hard to reach out to everyone they can in these camps with their programmes. "Through the courses, we're trying to give them hope as well as soft skills, such as training in tailoring and computers, to help them support themselves."

Mawahib conducting a Happiness programme for IDPs in Kurdistan
Is she not concerned about her safety? Mawahib doesn't miss a beat. "No," she says, simply. "When you go to help people, you always feel that God is protecting you. Also, the people are very welcoming, because you're there to give them something - not take more away from them." As for her maintaining her own mental fortitude, Mawahib says she practises what she preaches - which helps her deal with the stories she hears and the horrors she sees. "Sometimes, you'll cry with people. that's normal. But I don't carry these negative emotions with me. What I teach the participants in my workshops, I do for myself too, which helps me to be peaceful - even if the situation around me isn't so."
She admits her family and loved ones do worry for her at times ("they watch the news more than I do!"), but they also know she is working for a good cause. Turning philosophical, Mawahib adds, "If you're meant to die, you'll die anywhere.  You could die in your bed - you don't need to be in a war zone for that. I tell my family that this is my life now - and they're okay with it."
Ask her if she misses her old life and Mawahib breathes a huge sigh of relief. "No way," she declares. "I feel so much more useful doing what I do now. Those 15 years working in the bank felt like 100 years to me, but every year now feels like mere minutes. That's what happens when you do service for others - you become more settled in yourself, because you're living what you teach everyday. Besides," she adds, "I'd much rather be managing people's lives than their money. It's a win-win situation that way!"
Mawahib plans to start a peace centre in Kurdistan next year, where they can train youngsters and have them go out and train others in turn. Her credo is simple: "These days, our anger is so cheap and our smiles are so expensive. It should be the other way around. We need to learn to appreciate the things we have."

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