Any child who has ever fantasised about a career as a circus performer has almost certainly practised walking along the top of a wall, arms out to the sides for balance, imagining the taut length of the tightrope underfoot, the long drop to the ring and the crowds watching in awe below.
Perhaps the closest comparable experience – short of actually joining the circus – is learning to walk across a slackline, a length of strong but flexible webbing an inch or two wide. Slacklines can be suspended a few feet above the ground or hundreds of feet in the air, when crossing them becomes a gut-wrenching test of the nerves known as highlining.
Unlike a tightrope, a slackline is flexible and dynamic, bouncing and rocking from side to side with each step. Mastering the art of balancing as the line shifts beneath you takes patience, bravery and the ability to achieve a state of deep concentration and focus.
It is these qualities that make slacklining a valuable tool for working with refugees, explains Sonya Iverson, co-founder of the United States-based NGO Crossing Lines.
“Slacklining gives you a chance to see your own emotions and learn how to process them,” Iverson says, “because you can’t be angry, you can’t be sad, you can’t be hurt or upset while you’re on the slackline. These negative emotions turn into muscle tension, which then transfers onto the line and the line starts shaking and it’s hard to walk, so it creates this natural feedback loop which allows you to learn to control your emotions,” she explains.
Iverson and her partner Bradley Duling founded Crossing Lines in 2013. Its mission “is simply to connect people, not necessarily refugees and not necessarily in the Middle East”, Iverson explains. “We have a handful of projects that we’re starting to build in other places, but this is our major focus at the moment.”
Alongside working with refugee groups in Denver, Los Angeles and New Mexico, they began working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon in October last year. “It’s the place where I felt we were the most needed and could do the most good,” explains Iverson, who has fond memories of the Middle East, having spent several months in Aleppo in 2009. “Teaching refugees is something I’d been thinking about doing for a while,” she says. “Then when [Donald] Trump signed the travel ban in January last year, and I saw how much anti-immigration was becoming normal in American conversation, that scared me. The travel ban was my inspiration for really launching this project.”
Last spring, she travelled to Lebanon to meet potential partner NGOs who could help her bring slacklining to informal settlements in the Bekaa Valley. To date, Crossing Lines has organised two trips to work with refugees in informal tented settlements, setting up slacklines and providing lessons to local children.
One of the strengths of slacklining is that it requires learners to let go of self-consciousness and fear – a process that can be helpful for children who have experienced the loss of their friends, their homes and sometimes even members of their family.
“It’s that combination of putting yourself in a playful, vulnerable position, where you’re a little bit afraid, but you’re also having fun – I think that’s something that slacklining does really well,” says Iverson. “Even on a basic slackline over the ground, you take one step and it shakes and you feel really nervous, like ‘Am I going to fall? Do people think I look really silly?’ But everyone around you gets it, and I think that really quickly forms a sense of community.”
For children whose stability and routine has been stripped away by war, slacklining lessons offer psychical and psychosocial development: the children let loose and have fun while learning behavioural skills that Iverson says can help with some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Learning how to be present and stay focused on what you’re doing can be really powerful for these kids,” she explains. “A lot of what we’re teaching is behavioural, and social skills that they would learn if they were in school regularly or if they were in a more controlled community environment… A lot of these kids have never had to stand in line and wait their turn. They’re not used to trusting that they’ll get a turn. They don’t necessarily know how to interact with each other without fighting. We do a lot of parenting, teaching them behavioural skills while we’re teaching them to slackline.”
Crossing Lines spent a month in Lebanon in April, culminating with the launch of the inaugural edition of the Lebanon Highline and Adventure Festival, which took place in the Qadisha Valley, a stunning gorge in the north of the country. The festival marks an attempt to strengthen the local slacklining community, as well as to introduce Lebanon to international highliners.
“The idea of the festival was to try to bring as many people as we could to Lebanon to experience this little piece of the Middle East for themselves,” she says, noting its part of an attempt to counter negative perceptions and stereotypes of the region abroad.
For a week at the end of April, experienced highliners from 22 countries traversed slacklines up to 120 metres above the valley floor, crossing delicate, swaying lines from one precipitous side of the gorge to the other. Curious locals also came to try their hand at the sport.
“We had some locals who had never tried to highline, or who had only tried it once, come out to highline with us. Some Lebanese people from the local village who had never seen a slackline before wanted to try as well, so we had a couple of lines that were set up in such a way that they were intended for beginners. The shorter lines that we intended for beginners were maybe 20 metres high – still high enough to be scary,” says Iverson.
To date, Crossing Lines has worked with international volunteers from many different countries including the United States, Germany, Denmark, Ukraine, Tunisia, Iraq, India and the United Kingdom, as well as from Lebanon. But part of their long-term aim is to help develop the local community of slackliners and to engage more Lebanese volunteers with their refugee teaching programme.
"It's not just about the kids, it's about connecting people," explains Iverson. "I'm sure you've seen some of the growing strain between Lebanese and Syrians because of the economic situation of having 25 per cent of your population be refugees."
So far, the NGO has worked with approximately 650 Syrian children in the Bekaa Valley. They are due to return to Lebanon for two months in August, as a prelude to running a full summer-long programme next year. During their visit, Iverson hopes to work with other local NGOs to train volunteers within the camps how to set up and take down the slacklines, so that lessons can continue all year round.
"The idea is to have continuity with each group, so they can develop more skills," she says. "Even a single experience is beneficial because it gets you to open your eyes to different ways of doing things. It's a fun, playful day out where you get to meet all these new people and change your perspectives; but I think the real benefit of slacklining is when we can work with these kids longer term, and they can start to develop all these new skills and feel the therapeutic benefits," Iverson concludes.