17. Virginie Goethals: How sport rehabilitates refugees in Hong Kong

Sue Stockdale talks to Virginie Goethals, co-founder of RUN, a non-government organisation in Hong Kong that focuses on trauma rehabilitation through sport and education. Virginie explains how her love of the outdoors and running long distances accidentally inspired her to help female refugees in Hong Kong who are victims of sexual violence; and help them rebuild their mental and physical strength through running and hiking.

Virginie was born and raised in Belgium before studying law in Belgium, Spain and New York.  During her studies she worked tirelessly with ethnic minorities and refugees in impoverished neighbourhoods in her home country as well as an intern at UNDP. After university she joined Clifford Chance in New York and Brussels, before moving to Beijing. In Beijing, she earned a degree in sustainable development at SOAS (London) and worked in sustainable development at China Greentech (now Paulson Institute) and fundraised for Morningtears, a non-profit that focuses on the rights of children with imprisoned parents. She also served as a mentor to girls who participate in long-distance running events with Afghanistan through NGO Free to Run.

When she moved to Hong Kong co-founded RUN, a charity that provides sports as a rehabilitation tool for particularly vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers, with a special focus on women.  Virginie is also an experienced ultra-runner competing in many races, and the mother of three children. Virginie now spends all her time working on a volunteer basis for RUN where with her team they organise hiking and running programs for refugees who are survivors of torture and human rights abuses as well as rehabilitation through education. You can find out more about RUN here. 

Virginie Goethals Transcription

Sue: Welcome to another episode of access to inspiration. If you’ve ever imagined that sport has the power to overcome trauma, then keep listening because my guest today is Virginie Goethals. She is the co founder and managing director of RUN originally from Belgium, a lawyer, ultra runner, and mother of three kids, and I’m fascinated to learn about the non government organization that Virginie has set up in Hong Kong. Welcome to the podcast.

Virginie:  Thank you Sue. Thank you for having me.

Sue: Now, I know you’re a cofounder of Run in Hong Kong and an ultra runner yourself. What is it that you enjoy about running Virginie?

Virginie:  I love the freedom. I love to let my mind wonder. For me, running gives me a sense of peace. and really, it’s a way to, to rest basically. I love to be in nature as well.

Sue: I’m sure many people wouldn’t agree that it’s a form of rest and they might think it’s a form of hard work. When you do ultra running, how long are the types of runs or races that you do?

Virginie: I’ve done a lot of distances, from 100K to 100 miles, and my last longer one was 300 kilometers totally self-supporte, in one go in  Hong Kong.

Sue: My goodness. So how, how many hours did that take you?

Virginie: It took me about, I can’t even remember. I didn’t really pay attention to that, but, I think around 68 hours, , there was a lot of incline and basically the goal of that race, it’s called Hong Kong Four Trails. it’s more challenge than a race. it’s to combine the four beautiful trails in Hong Kong in one go.

Sue: That sounds like an Epic challenge. What, what sort of training do you do to be able to achieve something like that?

Virginie: I do cross training twice a week and then one, one long run, one short run and hill repeats. So basically training five days a week.

Sue: So that must take up a lot of time and a lot of focus to be able to do that.

Virginie: Not that much, because I really love the training. I had just to make it happen and fit it in, in between my work and my family. so I think if you really want to do it, there’s always a way, even with a full time job and a family.

Sue: Well, I think you make an important point there about the degree of focus and commitment to do something if you really want to, during the coronavirus challenge that the world has been facing, how have you managed to keep training or have you had to be indoors all the time?

Virginie: We’ve been quite lucky, in Hong Kong, we haven’t been on a government imposed lockdown, we only had, self-imposed lockdown. at the moment, we cannot gather outside in groups of more than four. So this has limited sport activities to not more than four people. all the the governmental tracks have been closed the  gyms have been closed. But it’s still possible to sneak into the public parks and go training outside so basically, if you want to make it happen, you can still make it happen, but there’s no access to any kind of of gym or weight training at the moment.

Sue: I see.

Virginie:  I’ve just continued my training. I did some, some workouts online and I just came back from, from two hours of hill repeats just now. , you’ve just tried to keep normal, and I think running is a great way also to, to have some normality in the middle of this health crisis.

Sue: So it’s really benefiting your mental state as well as your physical?

Virginie: Definitely. And I think a lot of people in Hong Kong, Hong Kong has a very large running and hiking community, and people are still running and hiking more than ever.

Sue: Well, it was through a running acquaintance of ours Colin,  that connected us in the first place. And now I know he mentioned that you’re originally from Belgium, Virginie. What took you to Hong Kong originally?

Virginie: I moved to Asia 10 years ago, so I first moved from, from Brussels to, to Beijing. originally we had to move from Brussels to, California. but then one month before the departure, my husband told me, okay, now it’s China. So I’d never been to China. I went on a quick two day visit. Just to, to have a look, because my kids were still very young. I had three kids under four years old when we left, I couldn’t see anything of Beijing because it was a massive sand storm. So I just went back to Belgium and just accepted that I would see Beijing as a surprise.

So I spent four years in more than four years of Beijing and loved it. and I was working in Beijing as well, and then my husband got transferred to Hong Kong. Basically, we asked to leave Beijing because of the pollution we didn’t know the longterm impact on the health of very young kids, and were a little bit uncomfortable. So we moved to Hong Kong. and we’ve been in Hong Kong now for five years and a half, and, and really love it.

Sue:  I have to laugh. When you, when you say that you were originally heading for California and then ended up in China, that as long as the place begins with the letter C, you’re quite happy to go there.

Virginie: Exactly. That’s what’s comes next.

Sue: so now I know you’re the co founder and managing director of Run. So tell us about what it does and what gave you the idea to start it up in the first place?

Virginie:  Run’s mission, is to rebuild the lives of vulnerable refugees, mainly women through sport and education. so run stands for more than running. it stands for  Rebuild the lives of vulnerable refugees, Unite them as a community and with the local community and the N stands for nurture.So the goal is to nurture refugees back into a more hopeful future. the idea of run is that basically support is more than. more than a leisure activity. It’s a basic human right to which everyone is entitled, especially women. we mainly focus on the women, at Run because we think that a lot of women don’t have access to sport due to for cultural reasons. Due to the, the family duties, or for religious reasons. So we try to give them a chance to do sports, to discover sports, to enhance their physical and mental strength. And at the same time, get a chance to continue their studies or start study so that they have a better chance at restarting a new life. The women with whom we work at run, are almost all victims of sexual violence doing sport for them is a very big step after what they’ve been through.

Sue: how did you identify there was a need to develop this nongovernment organization in the first place?

Virginie: it happens all very randomly. Yeah. as often in life, life takes you to very funny places. So originally I was, I was a lawyer. I worked in green tech. When I moved to Hong Kong, I wanted to go back to, to learn how to apply to in a couple of law firms. But then just before world refugee day, one of my friends who was a human rights lawyer, asked me to organize a hike for an NGO called just the center, that you provide amazing legal support to vulnerable refugees in Hong Kong. So I went, in June. with a lady that I didn’t know. Her name is Brenda. Sawyer. so we went together, organized that one hike for 13 women who were victims of sexual violence, and at the end of the hike the ladies  just said, see you next week. And we’re still there five years later. And together with Brenda, we founded Run.

Sue: so out of that first experience, it gave you the impetus to keep going and how, how does your training as a lawyer help you in the work that you do within Run?

Virginie: I think my training as a lawyer, Gives me a lot of flexibility to address a very large variety of issues that the women faces. so often when, when we meet the women, their biggest worry is the legal aspect of their case. I’m not a lawyer approved to practice in Hong Kong. But I did quite a bit of refugee law and also with women who are victims of domestic violence in the past. so I’m able basically to, Advice them about a refugee law and orienting them to lawyers, to other NGOs. For example, just the central Hong Kong who can assist them with the legal procedures. Also, for example, today we had, a woman come in who is a victim of domestic violence, and I can immediately explain to her what the steps are for her legal protection if she decides to take those steps.

Sue: So your ability to be clear and have some sort of procedure or advisory capacity to help these women sounds like it’s quite important as a strength that you bring to the

Virginie: Yeah. But, but, but our goal is not to provide legal support, our mission is really to provide trauma intervention the legal support or the legal advice that we can provide them is just a bonus. And like I often say at RUN we are a small NGO, it’s, it’s about cleaning toilets, baking cakes, providing legal support, holding hands, cry together  it’s really a little bit of everything.

Sue:  It does sound like it now I know that your grandfather has a special place in your heart when you think about Run, because he was a refugee himself. What is it about his experience that you relate to and is so important to you?

Virginie: my grandfather was an amazing man. he came from Hungary, and fled to Belgium in 1956. he was a refugee in Belgium for about 30 years. It took him a lot of time to obtain status in Belgium. And my grandfather was also very heavily traumatized because he spent many, many years in Russian Gulag. He never had any chance to have mental support to overcome his trauma. He was an amazing man, spoke many languages. Led a very simple and humble life because of the hardships he had to overcome. and to me, he’s really an inspiration for my work. I never know that when he was still alive, I never thought he would have such a big impact on me.

Sue:  it sounds like that firsthand experience you had of your grandfather of how he coped was really useful when it came to the opportunity to set up Run?

Virginie: Definitely. I didn’t have to, I didn’t have to think twice. It was, it was something that I had to do.

Sue: I know that there is proven research to show that the power of sport can help to overcome trauma. How does that work? why is it that helping people to have some form of exercise really can help them mentally.

Virginie: In fact, exercise has a very quick effect on the brain. when you go running your endorphins, go up and your endorphins are your happy hormone if you exercise regularly. It’s a good way to stay in a happy place in your brain. And also when you go, you exercise, even very mild exercise your cortisol levels, that’s your stress hormone levels. They go down. refugees face a lot of anxiety. a lot of depression, a lot of PTSD and very simple exercise. Just spending some time in nature really helps, to get them in a happy place. longterm research also shows that, that exercise has a very positive effect on your brain, serotonin. So it helps to basically rewire the brain, and overcome trauma as long as you exercise on a regular basis. The research is still very preliminary, but there are very strong signs about sport as a way to overcome trauma. So what we try to teach them is exercise regularly. Take care of yourself. Hiking and running are cheap sports. You can do them anywhere in any country. You just need, shoes and, some hills or just a flat road. And, and off you go. So we try to give them a tool, a self care tool, basically through running and hiking.

Sue: So I’m imagining a refugee arrives in Hong Kong and they’re not aware of your organization. How do they learn about it? And then where do they get the shoes on the equipment to be able to go out and participate in what you offer?

Virginie: Very sadly,at the moment in Run we only offer support to 150, refugees and asylum seekers at the moment. So, two thirds of these are women and the rest of our children. And we also have about 22 men. of who we take care of. Those men are victims of, of torture. we have a very long waiting list so refugees and asylum seekers get referred to us by other NGOs who serve, refugees. and, basically they are also frontline NGOs, including the Hong Kong government also refers refugees and asylum seekers to us as well as, UNHCR. and we take, the most vulnerable, when they come to Run, we provide them with shoes, with t-shirts, with shorts so that they can go running. We collect a lot  second hand, and we also get a lot of donations from sport shops. So, most of the time we’re able to provide them a new pair of shoe. and we also collect some second hand tee shirt, shorts, that we’re able to provide them. You don’t need much, you know, when backpacks are very cheap it’s, it’s just very easy to set them up and set them up and, and send them out hiking and running with our volunteers.

Sue: So that was going to be my next question is who? Who do they go with and how far do they go on their first experience with you?

Virginie: And so we have different groups. we have, our entry group is a women only, hiking group. it’s a very safe environment where we have absolutely no men. So we organize, breakfast for the ladies in the morning, because all of them don’t have enough funds to pay for food, to pay for three meals a day.  They survive on 40 Hong Kong dollars in food per day. So that’s about five US dollars, which is almost nothing in one of the most expensive cities in the world. So they arrive in our space on, in the morning, they  will have breakfast. They will leave their kids in childcare. We have some childcare volunteers. and, often the mom, the moms also don’t have a husband. 60% are alone with their children. So they need leave their kids in childcare, and then they’re off. They go to the trails. we have different levels. If someone just joins a run, she will go in an entry level group or do more like easy hiking, quite flat hiking. And then we will start to increase the difficulty. So usually we have. About two to three  different hiking levels on, on that same day, that the women can, can join. Sometimes someone will do a more difficult hike and go over mountains. In Hong Kong, these are called the twins, so they will do a double twins, but on the other day. you might feel really down and only feel like doing a flat hike, which is fine. in December, we also would love to combine hiking and just finish up the beach, have a splash there, and then just, just go back to the office for for lunch. so we try to be creative and play with what we have in Hong Kong for them to, to recharge their batteries. Once they are comfortable in the women hiking group, they can move back into a mixed gender environment which can be challenging, especially for women who are victims of sexual violence. So we have a running group once a week. It’s a group of, 50, refugees. Tutors are women, and their teenage kids are also allowed to join. it’s a coached session on the track. It’s quite a lot of sessions, but  again, in thatgroup, we also have different levels. It’s professionally coached by a coach called Charlotte Cutler who is very well known, in Hong Kong. She’s very good at cracking the whip, but, they all love it.

Sue:  So,there’s a structured approach to how people can get participate in the activities that go on. What does it give you, Virginie? What sort of pleasure do you get of setting this up and seeing it flourish?

Virginie: It’s definitely a very tough program because we face so much hopelessness. depression. a lot of them are at risk of self harm as well, but I love to see them grow. I love to, to hit the top of a mountain with them. And. See how happy they are, how proud they are of themselves, which is really a big thing.  I love to see them smile. you don’t need much to transform someone. You just need, you know, a helping hand, some running shoes. some good teachers who give, give them English classes, computer classes, access to online education. Basically, you give them dignity and. It has a massive snowball effect. So basically just the happiness, the smiles on their face, which are amazing. We had this one lady, who come from East Africa, very, very sad case. She arrived as a minor refugee in Hong Kong has been through a horrendous experience, the worst you can imagine.

And, A couple of months ago, she was running on the track, which for her is a big thing to be back in a mixed gender environment. And one man who was running in the wrong direction of the track, bumped into her and the man didn’t say anything, and she got up with the men and told him, you say, sorry, you bumped into me. You say, sorry. I just want to hear the sorry. And her English is still a little bit broken, but. I was so proud of her that she, she went to that man and said, in a nice way, I want you to apologize because you hurt me.

And the men apologized. I think he was just into his, into his running and didn’t notice that he really elbowed her quite hard, but it’s this kind of strength that really makes me happy where those women can stand up for themselves. And take ownership of their lives.

Sue: So you’re really describing very well the sense of dignity and self respect that they regained from the experience of running and walking and being in a supportive environment as well I imagine.

Virginie: the ladies also participate in races in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has an amazing running community. It’s extremely supportive of refugees and asylum seekers, and we would never have been able to be where we are without them. So we participate in 5k races. and when the first time I asked the ladies who wants to do a hundred kilometers race a few hands, came into the air. And those were not our best runners, but those women had all the determination that was needed to finish such a race. And they finished it like for two years in a row now. and in the beginning when I was signing them up, people told me, why are you doing this? You know, those ladies. Cannot do this. This is too much. The disappointment is going to be massive. And I said, no. They will learn so much just from the training. It’s going to be worth the experience. And those ladies did a fantastic job. I know. They’re totally hooked.

Sue:  So your ultra distance community is expanding?

Virginie: Totally. Yeah. Yeah.

Sue: I can get the sense of passion that you have, Virginie, from how you’re talking about the work that is being done and what do you think are the kind of qualities that you bring to the, to the operation?

Virginie: I’m very stubborn.

Sue: That’s important.

Virginie: Im know sure if if that’s a quantity or not, but I try to see that as a quality, meaning that when something is not possible, I will try to do it.

Sue: You’ll find a way to overcome the obstacle and get round it.So, so what are the plans for the future?

Virginie:We hope to be able to offer more spots in the to women who, who need support. we’re slowly expanding our program. We don’t want to lose the community aspect that this program has. and since last year we’ve also built, A very good relationship with organizations in Canada we hope to be able to send more of our participants to Canada through community sponsorship. Refugees and asylum seekers are indeed stuck in Hong Kong because Hong Kong has not signed the UN refugee convention. So even once the obtain status, they need to wait many, many years to be able to be resettled.

Only 1% of them will be resettled according to UN HCR statistics. So through community sponsorship in Canada, we’re able to send families and single women with children and some single men to Canada. This year. We hope to be able to send about 17 of them and hopefully more. More next year. I think this is the way to go in, in the future.

And it’s also, the way that, UNHCR, is promoting for refugees, basically relying on local communities to take in refugees and asylum seekers. because we need local partnerships to improve the lives of, of those who need it the most. We cannot just rely on governments and especially now with Covid 19, if the governments are totally stretched, overwhelmed, and it’s up to local communities to step up.

Sue:  It sounds like such a worthwhile, cause that you’re involved in there, Virginie  is that your full time activity, what else do you spend your time doing.

Virginie: it’s a more than full time activity besides running and my family, I love cooking. I’m trying to be a vegan, but for the moment it’s been vegan with a twist. like my friends say, and I love reading as well, and just taking hikes with my family for basically very, very simple things.

Sue: I think you’re giving us the sense that it’s simplicity and being back to nature and having support around you is really all you need to flourish as a human being. To have that dignity and self respect. Well, it’s been great to talk to you today, Virginie. How will people be able to find you on the internet if they’re interested to find out

Virginie: Our website is  RUNHK.ORG they can find us there and are linked to Instagram and Facebook is on our, on our website.

Sue: Fantastic. Well, we’ll put a link to that on the show notes it’s been a real pleasure to talk to you.

1 comment on “17. Virginie Goethals: How sport rehabilitates refugees in Hong Kong

  1. Like!! Great article post.Really thank you! Really Cool.

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