The same discipline and training that taekwondo students are learning in the West Kootenay is helping survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide overcome their lingering trauma.
Kootenay Martial Arts owner Dean Siminoff recently returned from Rwanda where he used martial arts to train 35 therapists who work with genocide survivors.
The training is part of a program called Enhanced Resilience that uses martial arts to help trauma survivors break out of the helpless and powerless state that these devastating experiences have created.
Survivors learn how to tap into their own resilience, integrate their traumatic experiences in a safe environment and resume living their lives with a greater sense of empowerment.
Siminoff said the trip included a partnership with AVEGA, an organization that works with thousands of women made widows by the genocide.
“The trip was amazingly successful. We’re already making plans to return in the spring to continue their training and expand the program,” he said.
“We worked with widows who didn’t know if they could do the physical training, including one day a group of 10 women all over the age of 70, to see how the Enhanced Resilience program can work for any of the therapists’ patients. Their success was inspiring. By the end of the week, the therapists and widows were breaking boards.”
While English is one of the country’s four official languages, Siminoff’s team in Kigali includes a translator who speaks Kinyarwanda.
“It’s exhausting, even though we’re working only four hours with the translator and the therapists each day,” he said.
”It’s physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting, yet the progress we made, and the achievements we made each day, were incredibly uplifting.”
Siminoff has been developing the Enhanced Resilience program locally through Martial Arts for Justice (MAJ), the charitable organization he founded four years ago to harness the goodwill and talents of martial artists and martial arts schools across the country.
MAJ’s mission statement is “to protect vulnerable people from violence and oppression through the platform of martial arts.”
The Rwandan newspaper The New Times wrote two articles about Siminoff and MAJ’s work with AVEGA while he was there. From features came another highlight for him: meeting Sensei Sinzi, a genocide survivor and karate black belt, who is a legend in Africa.
“He invited us to his dojo for a class and had me lead more than half of it. Talk about intimidating,” said Siminoff.
“He’s a hero. He lost his wife, daughter and parents all to murder, and he saved more than 100 people from the genocide. To sit and visit with this man, I was in awe, and even more humbled that he tracked me down after seeing our story in the Kigali newspaper. He asked if he could be a member of Martial Arts for Justice. It was unbelievable.”
Martial Arts for Justice is an alliance of martial artists and school owners who choose to actively pursue justice, locally and globally. While some of its board of directors are Nelson area residents, MAJ partners with martial arts studios throughout the country.
The group has worked to help protect children from human trafficking and slavery and now is promoting the Enhanced Resilience program to help victims of trauma. Each spring, partner schools hold a Breaking Boards fundraiser across Canada to support MAJ’s efforts. They have raised more than $200,000 in less than five years.