Capoeira classes in an Australian Immigration Detention Centre, By Stephen Jepson

Over the years I have been encouraging my students to engage in Capoeira-related activities as part of community development endeavors. I believe this is one of the best ways, I have found, to lead them to discover by themselves the intercultural libertarian and egalitarian context from which Capoeira evolved from. Whereas in Brazil these programmes usually target extremely poor youngsters, often from violent backgrounds, in Australia and Finland we have been using Capoeira classes to empower, socialize and bring playfulness to those who have been excluded because of their ethnicity and refugee statuses. In one way or another, whenever Capoeira classes are planned to empower the students, and not to serve as grass-roots recruitment for the catering group, these programmes are bringing joy, hope and strength to those living in harsh conditions world over. The following article was written by Steve, one of my students in Australia, and it tackles both the difficulties of establishing this kind of programme and the benefits it brings to refugees in detentions centres. Please leave your comments.
Axé! Eurico.

My name is Stephen Jepson. I am a Registered Nurse working at Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia. I am here for four months. I have been fortunate enough to be able to take Capoeira classes for the detainees whilst working here.

Australia has a controversial policy of mandatory detention for those who arrive without visas. This means they will be locked up in an immigration detention centre until their identity can be determined and their claim for asylum approved. There is no maximum time frame for detention, effectively allowing for people to be detained indefinitely. Some people remain in detention for years.

Curtin IDC is one of several such facilities in Australia. It is a maximum-security facility surrounded by razor wire electric fence, not unlike a prison. CCTV cameras are everywhere throughout. To enter work I must go through a checkpoint similar to airport security. A high degree of secrecy surrounds these centres and cameras and mobile phones are not permitted inside, hence I do not have any photos to accompany this article. Movement inside the centre is highly restricted: to walk around inside the centre you must wait at one of several reinforced metal gates. The camera above goes to a central security office, and you can only proceed once the guard unlocks the gate for you remotely.

Curtin IDC currently houses some eight hundred detainees. They are adult male, mostly Afghani clients of Hazaragi descent. There are also some Pashto Afghani, some Iraqi, and some Iranian, and some Pakistani detainees. The unstable political situation in these countries has meant considerable numbers of asylum seekers have left their homes in hope of finding safety and a better life for themselves. Some have chosen to come to Australia. After making their way to Indonesia by air, most of them are forced to come to Australia by boat. Often times the boats are not seaworthy and the boat trip from Indonesia to here is a treacherous one. Many people drown while attempting the journey.

The detainees’ existence in immigration detention is a bleak one. While all the detainees’ physical, and material needs are met, being locked up in immigration detention for an indeterminate period can cause significant deterioration in mental health. They have little autonomy over their lives while they are locked up, and are given little or no information regarding the progress of their asylum claims. Many people are deeply traumatized from the persecution and torture that prompted them to leave home and it has occurred that people have been detained alongside the people who persecuted them in their home countries. Being separated from loved ones adds to their anguish. Boredom adds to these stresses significantly.

Working in this environment I saw a unique opportunity to introduce Capoeira into a setting where I thought its benefits could be quite profound. Given the success of Capoeira programmes working with disadvantaged people, and given the joyfulness I have gained from capoeira, I was keen to share it with the detainees.

Capoeira is an excellent way to exercise, being a great way to improve cardiovascular fitness, strength and flexibility. This has obvious physical health benefits. However,
I believe Capoeira can be of immense benefit to mental health in this sort of detention centres as well. I believe this is so for several reasons: Vigorous exercise releases endorphins, which improves mood; additionally, Capoeira is an intrinsically joyful game, providing a unique setting for people to interact; it also gives people a way to blow off steam in a healthy way; and encourages people to engage with and improve their physicality in an enjoyable way.

Improved fitness also gives a degree of physical and mental resilience – a big help in stressful situations. In this setting it also gives the detainees a fun activity to take their minds off the stress of being in detention. I also hope that for students who continue training after they leave Capoeira will provide a means to create friendships and a support network for themselves if they join a good Capoeira group.

In order to begin my classes, there were obstacles to work with. The majority of the detainees do not speak English, and I did not have access to an interpreter, which meant all classes were taught with limited linguistic communication. Concerns were voiced about teaching a martial art to detainees (concerns about them overpowering their captors perhaps?), and this remained a constant point of contention. Because my primary role at Curtin IDC was a nursing one I had to be able to take the classes at a time of day when we had sufficient staff to allow me to leave. In the afternoon there is a brief overlap of staff, where both the morning and afternoon staff are on site. This enabled me to go then, so the classes were scheduled 2:30-4pm Monday Wednesday and Friday.

In addition to this, I had no prior experience teaching capoeira, and I am a relatively inexperienced capoeirista myself (practicing for four years). I did wonder how successful I would be at teaching, whether I could do it properly, let alone if anyone would turn up!

Nevertheless, after pitching my idea as a health promotion activity, I got my boss’s blessing. SERCO, the company that run the detention centre day to day and provide security staff, were also supportive, providing me with an iPod to put music and film clips on, and a space to train, with a TV screen and a sound-system. They also gave me a willing and enthusiastic security officer, Clinton, to accompany me as the clinic is outside the compound where the clients stay and medical staff are not permitted to enter without an escort.

And so the classes began.

Each class lasts an hour and a half to two hours. We begin with fifteen minutes of warm-up, start off with ginga practice, then practice attack and defensive movements. We also practice acrobatic movements and spend some time with fitness exercises such as push-ups and sit-ups. We have been learning the sequências de Mestre Bimba and practicing moves and sequences in pairs. I have been using Training Rodas to give the guys the opportunity to give a context to the movements they have learned. I think this has worked quite successfully, in that they are learning to apply their movements in an organic and fluid way, rather than just practicing isolated movements. Clinton would often finish the class with some yoga to cool down with.
Two students, in particular, are very enthusiastic, and come to every class without fail. These two have developed a decent vocabulary of movements, and some fluency. They have also become proficient enough to assist me with teaching total beginners who come, and since they speak a little English they are able to act as interpreters. Quite a few people have come sporadically, and every class has a few people who are fascinated to watch, but do not want to join in, despite much cajoling and encouraging from me.

One tool I have found particularly useful in assisting with the capoeira classes was having film clips of Rodas to show. I thought this gave a good explanation to what we were doing, and hopefully, gave an idea of the energy of a Roda – especially useful given the language barrier.

Unfortunately I did not have access to any musical instruments, so teaching the musical side of capoeira was harder. We did practice clapping with some basic rhythms, and also learning a few songs, but by and large the guys who attended were more interested in the movement, and since I don’t consider myself terribly proficient at the music, I left it at that.

After three weeks, someone from SERCO management complained about the classes, and I was ordered to stop. However, since Cliton continued to fetch me to take the classes and no one attempted to stop us, we continued. After a couple of weeks my boss told me that we would be allowed to continue if we changed the name. So we called it ‘Aerobic Yoga’ henceforth; which seemed to please those against my Capoeira classes.

Turn out has been modest; usually with about 5-8 people taking part in each class as well as onlookers. When we started Clinton would go out and drum up some customers for the class, which had varying results! Those who attended do seem to thoroughly enjoy it, and it has been rewarding seeing them develop. I must say it has been a privilege teaching Capoeira to these guys, and I think it has helped me to appreciate Capoeira from a completely different perspective. I think it has been highly worthwhile.

The guys who attend regularly have said they enjoy the physical fitness aspects of Capoeira and the social component as well. It is interesting that some of the guys who attend are from different cultural groups and don’t speak the same language, so again, Capoeira has served as something of a unifying tool. They have also reported increasing fitness as a positive side effect.

While writing this article, I have been told that the classes are no longer allowed to continue. Reasons cited are that I do not have a fitness instructor’s qualification, and safety concerns about teaching the detainees a martial-art (e.g. teaching them how to stage a riot or some such). Unfortunately Clinton has left, so I am now unable to access the space where I taught the classes. I always knew that the classes would end once I left, and it is now less than two weeks until I leave Curtin. As much as I would like to continue teaching them, I do feel as though I have accomplished something good. The two dedicated students are still motivated to continue training without me, and I have given them the information to contact groups in the community once they leave detention.

9 thoughts on “Capoeira classes in an Australian Immigration Detention Centre, By Stephen Jepson”

  1. Great article! Not to sound cliche, but this sounds like something straight out of a movie! I could picture myself inside the roda with those detainees. Capoeira is such a powerful tool. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi Stephen, that’s fascinating. Thanks for writing this. Do you ever come down to Perth? You should look us up here if you do! It’s a shame you weren’t allowed to continue, do you know if any of your students kept it going on their own or would they not be allowed?

  3. Fantastic article, Steve. What a shame the people who run the detention centres don’t share your perspective.

  4. Most good read Steve. Well impressed you took this on board and made it happen.. I agree with Brett – it does sound like something from a movie. I would like to here more about the whole course of the 4 months, maybe are more personable account of the friendships and frustrations encountered??
    Really fantastic to here about this..
    Good Work!!!

  5. Thanks for your comments guys.
    Lobo I don’t get to Perth very often, but I would love to come and train with you guys if I do.
    Some of the guys I trained have continued practicing in my absence and indicated they would like to continue training once they leave detention so I have given them contact details for groups around Australia.


  6. Great initiative!
    I remember when I started teaching in 2007 is Syria, I was more or less on the same level and made lot’s of songs up ( no one understand Portuguese at that time anyway)
    It’s a shame that the classes are stopped, but also it is important to show the impact on the community with a monitoring and evaluation system. The chances to get acknowledgement and support are mutch higher. I wish you the best, keep on your good work,


  7. That’s brilliant Steve.
    Capoeira can be such a poweful tool for emancipation of the mind if not the body and surely that’s what the people in the detention centre are in need of. Also providing them with the idea of finding community through capoeira when they are released from the centre is really positive.
    Very impressed!

    PS: Aerobic yoga! Nice one.

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