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Breathing New Life

An Interview with Katrien Franken for Evolve Magazin about her philanthropy work with refugee youth in Africa.

I want to thank the team of Evolve Magazin for inviting me to speak about the Open Up project for refugees in Africa. Empowering youth to become leaders of change. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be here today – and thankful to all the persons who made this happen.

The interview is being released on the 13th of November, 2021. Among inspiring others, like Tyson Yunkaporta, my work is being highlighted as GLOBAL INTEGRAL, focusing on the future of education; alive learning; Making-Humans-Possible, in Africa and in the world. This issue deeply explores the myth of the market - and to search for creative visions and designs for a new economy and society.

This English transcript is written by Mike Kauschke of Evolve Magazin

Breathwork with and for refugees in Africa

Katrien Franken is founder of Open Up and teaches breathwork and inner development to individuals and in organizations, initiates research projects on the effects of breathwork and also takes this inner practice into the largest refugee camps in Africa. How can breathwork support people in this challenging situation? And how is it to engage with them across the difference of place and privilege? We spoke with Katrien Franken about a living exploration of going beyond limitations and finding our common humanity.

e: Now how did you come to the idea to work with refugees?

Katrien Franken: I’m passionate about bridge-building between worlds, and to create opportunities for transformation of people and through that transformation of society and the world. Through my work, Paulinho Muzaliwa Josaphat, founder of Unidos social center in Uganda, contacted me. I felt immediately inspired to learn more about his story, the community, and life in the camp. His nationality is Congolese and he fled his country in 2017 and became a refugee in Uganda in 2018. He lives in Nakivale Refugee Camp in Uganda with as many as 110.000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, Burundi, South Sudan and Ethiopia. It is one of the largest refugee settlements in the world.

There is a lot of humanitarian help to provide the basic needs, which is very needed. I became curious about the question: why is nobody approaching the inner state of humanity in such places that have been made ill? How can we genuinely and generously generate insight (in-side) that can catalyze a new story that can transform culture, and inform culture differently for generations to come? I see embodied breathwork and inner growth work as a basic need. I wanted to work from that inner place with and for people in such a situation. It takes tremendous courage to make strange a world of conditioned worldviews and ideas of belonging, and stigmatized hopelessness and finite loops of power structures. When we recognize that we no longer belong to ourselves because of identity politics, economical structures, colonization, who can we become?

e: How do you work with the refugees?

KF: It’s an alive learning exploration, and this is the whole idea of the project. The first prototype process was 6 weeks and shared a unique methodology. It takes a radical approach to breathing and shifts perceptions in thinking and feeling to allow creative explorations of a better world for people. Breathwork acting as gut microbiome, with rich inquiry explorations and provocative, supportive and challenging 3-hour live online sessions each week. Curiosity as a core element for discovery. Open spaces for reflective dialogue and deep listening. Experiential and experimental journeys, sound, meditation weaving into movement, group work and embodied breathwork practices to create a shared, immersive experience.

The Unidos team had one laptop available and youth fellows came from far to attend as the camp covers about 184 square kilometers. Some walked for 30 minutes and were welcomed in the family home of Paulinho and his wife Mariam. One of the inquiries we worked with was: What does breathing mean to you? It's a simple question, but when you open up to it systemically – also from the inner systems learning perspective, there is a whole world underneath to unravel and descend into. And I don't know who's learning who. I feel they are learning me, about their willingness, their sensitivities, their intelligence, and nuances, breathing together into new and unchartered territory.

e: Breath is such a basic human activity or quality. All humans breathe. So, the question you ask, everyone can answer in some way. It goes beyond separation.

KF: Yes, what does it mean for you to breathe? We investigate that together and invite full-body intelligence. What respiration feels? What it thinks? How would it think? Where does it come from? Who gave birth to it? How does it connect in relation to my life? If I'm not breathing freely, then what is holding me back? In search for “how” to breathe, this search — the “how” also is the very nature of inspiration. The breath is a connector to life, to the mystical, to nature.

e: How do the refugees experience this work with the breath?

KF: The process makes possible the release of what was taking hostage in their fear, in their joy, in their power, in their connectivity, their imagination and agency. Most of the people in the community are still facing negative emotions, and are traumatized by their past life (hunger, war, conflict, violence, child-labor.) which in turn causes physical and mental health issues, negative emotions, traumatism, fear and anxiety. The Open Up process helps them to learn how to relate and deal with their inner state with agency and reverence. Their experience is of feeling the release of stress and negativities in the heart, and of having more clarity of mind. Forgotten parts about themselves become available again for discharge and processing. It allows them to regain their own hopes long abandoned because of the struggles and pains struck in their lives both back in their countries of origins, and in the refugee camp. It inspired a collective hope in action. Some started to initiate little startups, initiating projects on their own with new regained self-confidence for improving life in the refugee camp. To think differently about themselves, their business and their future.

e: How do you deal with traumatic memories that maybe come up in this inner work?

KF: I hold space for it as best as I can, with the invitation to make ourselves available for what is most alive, and to open together to what comes alive. Together we are in the knowing that we are not alone. That we are being seen in discomfort and challenges without judgement, so we can allow for more of our humanness. It happens in all the nuances. I step on the brakes at times to give way for what wants to come through, and to be very attentive to the expression of it. If someone is smiling, there might be something traumatically happening internally. Or if somebody is really energetic and alive, there might be deep exhaustion underneath. So, I have to look and listen, and this is what I am experienced in, to engage with possibilities for more wholeness and help bring it into an awareness.

e: How do you see the future of the project?

KF: Through practice groups and training, where skills can be developed we hope to inspire and engage people and organizations to become active co-creators and local co-facilitators for this work. It should become accessible for everyone, through everyone. Decentralized and regenerative. The project is an invitation to give voice to the future of people, in spirit of Ubuntu. The people as the resource, capable, and having the capacity to create a better future. A radical investment, and love of individually responsibility. Together we are working on creating possibilities for refugee youth in Kenya, Tanzania and DR Congo to become part of the Open Up Alive Learning education program, but this will depend on more financial resources to bring the healing effects breath work there too.

Katrien is a multiple award-winning artist and founder of Open Up. She creates, curates and facilitates psychotherapeutic breathwork experiences, what she coined ‘alive learning‘ education. Opening up to inner innovation that can provide holistic solutions for global problems. She has applied her inner growth development background and breathwork across multidisciplinary projects, and for leaders, organisations, institutions, policy-makers, purpose-driven networks, and communities. She works with widely different people and largely with younger generations. Her work nurtures senses of the unknown, leading the inquiry towards social transformative change, conscious responsivity, and activism.


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