Summer Student Spotlight: Giving hope to refugee children one step at a time

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Students at Mississippi’s colleges and universities are having amazing summer adventures that combine education and new social experiences. Mississippi Today talks with one star student each week.

Lydia Mathis, teaches ballet to a class of refugee children at the Samaritan’s Purse community center in Iraq.

Lydia Mathis

Age: 21

Hometown: Bozeman, Mont.

School: Belhaven University

How she’s spending the summer: Volunteer dance instructor at Samaritan’s Purse International Relief organization, based in Boone, N.C., with many mission camps in northern Iraq

Lydia’s take: “Children don’t always have the vocabulary to be able to process what they’re going through. Dance is a great therapy,” said Mathis.

“Through movement, one of the goals for my classes was to help my students remember that they are extremely important and valuable to the world. Even though the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an organized group of terrorists, dismembered a number of the families the children come from, that can’t take away their value as human beings,” said Mathis.

Mathis taught girls and boys, ages three to 14, modern, ballet and creative movement every day at the community center for four weeks. She also shadowed a trauma therapist employed by the organization.

“In the camp, every refugee has been affected by ISIS to some degree and has been at the camp for about three years now,” Mathis said. “There’s a lot of psychological issues, mental illnesses, grief, depression and hopelessness. Some mental issues are attributed to living in a tent for so long torn from family. Most of these people didn’t start out poor. They started in neighborhoods with their families, like you and I.

“Their homes and cities have been obliterated and there’s not a clear answer of their future,” said Mathis.

The children surprised Mathis.

“They were really excited to learn new things. It was an incredible experience just to see how even through all of this trauma they’ve gone through they were resilient and still had this desire to laugh, move and play like any other kid in the world,” said Mathis.

What she did for fun: “Iraq is definitely the desert,” said Mathis, laughing.  “But in northern Iraq, it’s beautiful in the mountains.”

Mathis took many hikes in the mountains, went horse-back riding and enjoyed picnics with other volunteers.