Lydia Mathis

Photo courtesy David Sprayberry

Photo courtesy David Sprayberry

Belhaven University junior Lydia Mathis recently spent five weeks in northern Iraq working to combat some of the lasting effects of terrorism through dance.

Mathis worked with Samaritan's Purse, an international nonprofit relief organization, to provide movement and dance classes to Yazidi refugees who fled their homes to escape ISIS. She returned to the United States on July 20.

"Working there was an incredible experience because, what you see on the news about the conflict, there is indeed an ever-present reality, but we often don't see that there are also lots of civilians and refugees just trying to live their lives in tents," she said. "These people are just like you and me, but a lot of times, they are labeled. People don't see them as they are. They have the same needs as us, like protecting their families and being financially stable, but face much harsher conditions."

Mathis, who is 21 years old and was born in Colorado Springs, Colo., became involved with Samaritan's Purse through her older sister, Sarah Nowery, and her brother-in-law, Matthew Nowery, who both work for the organization's northern Iraq branch. Mathis visited them three times throughout 2016 and heard from staffers about a community center that the organization established in a refugee camp.

She arranged to visit the camp and met with a trauma therapist, who manages programs at the community center that help refugees deal with depression and trauma. Mathis decided that the community center could benefit from a dance program for all age groups and made arrangements with the center's director to establish a dance therapy program.

"Dance is an interesting tool in a therapy context because while trauma therapy emphasizes the mind and emotion, the body is also a key expressive tool for nonverbal communication," Mathis said. "Movement can help rebuild mental pathways and is a great way to just get people ... really living in a community. Dance also doesn't face restrictions like a language barrier for spoken communication and is great for expressing your thought process and what you're going through.

"The dance program is also great for kids in the refugee camps who don't have as much opportunity to go where they want. It gives them something to look forward to every day, goals to achieve and a way to have fun. It's something everyone can do together with their neighbors and put a smile on the kids' faces."

Mathis started taking ballet lessons when she was 3 years old and continued practicing dance throughout her life. She said she considered stopping in high school in order to pursue a field in which she could help people, but changed her mind after learning about dance therapy. She enrolled at Belhaven in 2015 after determining that the university had good programs for both dance and health.

Mathis is set to graduate by 2019 with a bachelor's degree in dance with a minor in visual arts and psychology. She plans to pursue a career in expressive arts therapy.

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