Reaching out: How Yogafest Middle East is helping Palestinian children

This weekend’s Yogafest Middle East in Dubai is raising money for a children’s charity in Palestine that helps innocent victims of the conflict.

Eman, an 11-year-old who suffers from lung cancer, stands in the wreckage of her home in Gaza. She will be among those to benefit from Yogafest Middle East’s fundraising efforts. Courtesy Celia Peterson
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In many parts of the world, tranquillity, healing and ­relaxation are considered ­vital ingredients for a balanced life, but for the children of Gaza, these three things are as foreign as a world without the memory of air strikes, gunfire and mass destruction.

The youngsters in Gaza and the West Bank are the innocent victims of the conflict that has plagued the region in recent years and they’ve become the face of the crisis internationally – some have lost their homes, others their families and some have been maimed or forced to battle illness in harsh conditions.

For these children, every day is a personal battle to stay healthy. Thousands of them are working to repair the psychological damage caused by the devastating conflict between Israel and ­Hamas.

Fortunately, organisations like the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund dedicate themselves to healing the wounds of war, occupation and poverty for children in the Middle East.

This year, Elaine Kelly, the founder of this weekend’s ­Yogafest Middle East, and her team have taken a particular interest in the plight of those children caught up in the conflict and have joined forces with PCRF to raise Dh100,000 to assist in the healing efforts.

“I was really moved by what happened in Gaza this past year, and I wanted to do something to help the children who are the real victims of this ongoing struggle,” Kelly says.

“PCRF is such an amazing organisation and so well organised that it makes it really easy to help them. I have set up a donation page on their website where ­anyone who attends can donate ­Yogafest.”

For Kelly, Yogafest is an event that she’s proud of and one that lays claim to being the largest and only free mind-and-body event in the Middle East. In addition to raising much-needed funds, it brings together thousands of yoga enthusiasts, families and new visitors for two days of meditation, yoga, wellness sessions and healthy eating, all in a beautiful outdoor setting.

“It’s amazing and makes me so proud,” she said. “It’s my gift to the city where I have spent the last 20 years of my life ... as a committed yogi, my life purpose is to help people share my passion for yoga and health with others. Yoga has changed my life and I want to share that with everyone.”

The Yogafest concept was born in 2010 to encourage busy office workers in Dubai’s Media City to venture outside. Participants can enjoy everything from a yoga class to tai chi or massage and postural assessments. They can even try blindfold yoga or a traditional ­Pilates class.

Five years on, the festival attracts thousands of interested participants each year. It’s a sustainable community event that brings teachers and students together in Dubai Internet City and focuses on healing and raising funds for children in need.

“In just the past five years ... yoga has grown from three ­studios in Dubai to more than 20 and is now a mainstream practice that corporates are bringing into the office to help employees deal with stress and pressure. We need it so much.”

Figures from the United Nations show that as many as 500 children were killed in Israel’s war on Gaza last year – the third conflict in less than five years. About 18,000 homes were destroyed and up to 500,000 residents were displaced.

Of those who survived, their biggest hope for rehabilitation is the generosity provided by global charities and foundations focused on helping them heal.

The PCRF organises and brings in hundreds of medical volunteer missions from all over the world to Palestine and Lebanon’s refugee camps, providing children with free medical care and local medical personnel with free training.

It also arranges medical care all over the world for sick and injured children from the Middle East who cannot be adequately treated in their homeland.

In addition, the PCRF sponsors humanitarian projects in ­Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon to provide relief for poor and needy children, including supplying wheelchairs, summer camps and a child sponsorship ­programme.

The co-founder and chief executive of PCRF, Steve Sosebee, says that while the organisation is focused on the physical healing of children in the Middle East, they’re just as focused on healing their spirits and souls by giving them “love, support and ­kindness”.

“Yogafest is a natural partner with the PCRF … we are honoured to have so many people participate in the UAE to help support our work.

“Elaine Kelly’s support for children in Palestine demonstrates that individuals can have a positive impact on the lives of poor and needy children a world away.”

He adds that the money raised by Yogafest will help build a paediatric cancer department in Gaza, which is urgently needed.

“It will also provide yoga for children during their treatment, as a way to help their spirits and bodies to fight this disease and to heal,” Sosebee says.

One of the children whose homes was destroyed is Eman. The 11-year-old from Gaza suffers from lung cancer and is one of those who will benefit from the fundraising efforts by ­Yogafest.

Children like Eman are the reason Kelly has chosen the PCRF as the recipient of this year’s event donations.

“I want to help children who are not so fortunate. I believe we can change the world by educating children, especially young girls, who in turn become mothers who influence their sons,” the mother of two boys says.

“Currently, there is no cancer ward for children in Gaza and the cases of children with cancer is rising as the conflict escalates. There is a ward in the West Bank, but given the difficulties getting in and out of Gaza, a ward is really needed to serve the children who live there.”

On top of raising money for needy children, Kelly is also planning to see first-hand how the funds are being used to help them.

“I am planning a trip at the end of March. I have been corresponding with Robyn Long, who teaches yoga at the children’s cancer ward in the West Bank and is writing her PhD in Canada on using yoga as a way to help child cancer patients. I am planning to take some Arabic-speaking yoga teachers from here with me and we will spend time with the children doing yoga and getting to know them and their families better,” she says. “To me, this is most precious moment of ­Yogafest.”

Thanks to the generosity of the people of the Middle East, ­Yogafest has already raised 20 per cent of this year’s Dh100,000 target.

“I hope we will raise Dh50,000 at Yogafest and the rest through our moon events [a series of yoga classes based on the new and full moons], which run until May,” Kelly says.

“I believe the more we have, the more we need to give. I have been given so much and I have so much to give in return.”

More than 4,000 people are expected to attend this year's Yogafest Middle East, which continues today and tomorrow at Dubai Internet City. For more information or to make a donation, visit or