Updated 9 Jan 2024

Breathworks Teacher Priyanka Malhotra was one of our Seed Funding 2022 recipients, a programme we launched to equip our teachers to bring mindfulness to underserved groups in their community. Here she shares the positive reach and impact of her project with Refugee Council UK (who recently won the Frontline Service of the Year Award at the Third Sector Charity Awards) to help refugees and their carers in the UK. 


In August 2022, when I received the email from Breathworks CEO Helen Sullivan informing me that I had been awarded the Breathworks grant to teach mindfulness with Refugee Council (UK), I couldn’t believe it. It left me speechless. 

Since receiving the grant, I have taught four Mindfulness for Stress courses and now launched two weekly drop-in sessions. This all has been supported by Breathworks to whom I am immensely grateful for bearing the basic costs of my project. 

Dreams come true decades later

Why refugee related work? When I was in my late teens I wanted to be a war correspondent. I watched the great Christiane Amanpour from CNN and Barkha Dutt on an Indian news channel NDTV and dreamed of doing the same. Yet, I silently gave up my dream because I felt my parents could not be put through the pain of having me fly to yet another war zone and not know if like everyone else there I’d make it or not. Too much for a daughter to inflict on her parents. 

So no one has heard about my dream until 2023. Yet, I lived vicariously the conflicts through movies, books and also through friends and college courses. I don’t search for conflicts or seek them, they stumble sometimes into my life as did my friends and their own projects and desires in war and post-war areas and as did my love for graphic novels and that meant war too. When I began teaching mindfulness I realised this would be my way of returning to places that meant a lot to me since those teen years, war zones, and war affected people, and regions. With my parents still alive and my own health condition making it impossible to go and teach in person, I used my online mindfulness teaching to reach out to Refugee Council and since then it has been a friendship and a life changing experience.

The project

My project has been to offer 8-week Mindfulness for Stress courses to staff and volunteers at Refugee Council, and those supported by Refugee Council - adults in the UK hosting refugees, and refugees or displaced individuals (guests). 

I began teaching mindfulness with Refugee Council in April 2021 starting with the Resettlement Services in London. Since then, I have taught Mindfulness for Stress courses to host families taking in guests into the UK from Ukraine, and staff and volunteers working at Refugee Council, some of whom are refugees or displaced individuals themselves. I also offered drop-in mindfulness sessions to guests from Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine and have recently been given a grant to create a regular mindfulness and story-telling group session for guests. These are all taught online as I have severe M.E / CFS or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

My initial focus was to target the population of adult hosts who were taking in guests from Ukraine and refugees coming into the UK. We did a trial drop-in sessions for refugees during Refugee Week 2022 and a four-week course for host families with a staff member before I received the grant. 

In consultation with Refugee Council, we decided to focus on the Lewisham Resettlement Services first, with 8-week mindfulness courses for adult hosts of guests (displaced individuals supported by Refugee Council), and the charity’s own staff and volunteers. 

In autumn 2022, we expanded the courses to Lambeth and Lewisham Resettlement Services’ host families (adults only), and to staff and volunteers across the London services. At this time, my supervisor invited me to become an official volunteer of Refugee Council, which was an honour. 

My thinking was that the 8-week Mindfulness for Stress course would offer a simple way to reset any host families as they are on a challenging, altruistic and utterly kind mission to assist those struggling in their times of needs. My supervisor and supporters at Refugee Council Lewisham felt this would really benefit their staff and volunteers too after attending my initial trial sessions. Stresses for hosts include different cultural habits, mess created in their homes, video games being played loudly, sensing the worry and anxiety from those they are hosting, and for anyone working in this context, including myself, secondary war trauma.

Stresses for hosts include different cultural habits, mess created in their homes, video games being played loudly, sensing the worry and anxiety from those they are hosting, and for anyone working in this context, including myself, secondary war trauma.

Breathworks 8-week Mindfulness for Stress course offers tools to support all cohorts and demographics so far. 

One adaptation I made to the Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress course was to swap out the ‘random acts of kindness practice’ for a practice of noticing and appreciating kindness that is received and for staff encouraging the use of short arrival practices for meetings at Refugee Council. This idea came from the sense that these individuals are constantly giving kindness to others, yet they often struggle to receive or even notice the kindness around them. So as some consider leaving the profession or stepping back, they can benefit from noticing kindness around them, and might enable them to maybe not give too much of themselves which can leave them depleted.

screenshot of course participants

Priyanka leading one of her online courses offered to refugees, host families, staff and volunteers from Refugee Council UK.

In May 2023, I was invited to expand the offering to staff and volunteers in the northern counties of the UK, and soon after People and HR invited me to offer Breathworks’ Mindfulness for Stress courses regularly so all staff and volunteers across Refugee Council have the opportunity to benefit and participate in a programme that will last till end-2024. Staff and volunteers at Refugee Council include those with lived experiences of being displaced or a refugee. In autumn 2023, we began trialling our second staff and volunteers’ weekly drop-in mindfulness session for 30 minutes online for those who have attended an 8 week mindfulness course as part of this project.

What I have learnt

War trauma is real. I feel it. I am unsettled and I found this every time I was teaching. I speak of the need for mindfulness teachers to be aware when they must step back, and now I also do that. My supervisor tells me in jest, as he has been with me since I began teaching, that the teacher will return again. I never know when I am returning to teach until a few weeks before I start scheduling work again. I always return. 

In the work I do, my Refugee Council supervisor is always asking how I am, how am I coping, what is arising for me. She normalised the secondary war trauma that hit me hard after eight months of teaching when I needed a six-week holiday and drew back to only taught my one commitment outside of Refugee Council. She spoke at length on the need to be aware, and that helped. I had been watching romantic comedies during the last two courses to cope and I shared this with her. And this is a support because in these movies love happens, no one hurts another and simply seeing everything simple, with flowers in your hair and love arriving is a great support to me. Hot baths, my own practice, silence and supervision are all other supports I use when I teach or meet my course participants where they are at, yet for my work with Refugee Council it is necessary to add the two additional steps of knowing when to take a rest, and taking it, and watching the romantic movies as much as my health allows it. 


So far we have touched directly 80+ people but the ripple effect has been amazing. Someone formed a Whatsapp group with other Refugee Council beneficiaries in their home so they share their positive and pleasant experiences that they notice with each other each day. Someone discovered that their guests enjoyed their food and this has become a moment to gather, be mindful and have pleasure. I was also reminded by a mindfulness non-profit lead who I work closely with that when we shift one person, we shift so many as all the living beings they interact with are beneficiaries. I truly believe this when I am in courses for those hosting refugees or with staff and volunteers as they bear the secondary trauma. 

People report caring less about jammy hands on their walls or noticing their judgements or not worrying about their own children creating a mess at home or deciding to see if we can expand the offering in Ukraine because they shared what they are doing with their guest at home who then put them in touch with someone in the medical system in Ukraine. 

Other benefits are staff feeling less stressed, less anxious, hosts reporting shifting perspectives in the moment, finding time to rest with short practices. The anxiety levels and the smiles move in opposite directions around half-way through the course onwards – smiles and ease on the faces increase, and the anxiety levels drop in my own observation of what I see on screen. Some staff and volunteers bring the practices to their meetings at work to enable them to show up and engage more skilfully or be more present; and there is a practice for everyone to adopt and bring into their lives that they find over the eight weeks of a course.

What’s next for me

I feel so much love to have been able to expand this project with the help of Breathworks from a nascent idea. What next? More 8-week Mindfulness for Stress courses are going to be rolled out in 2024 at Refugee Council starting in January with a team of psychotherapists from the My View project that provides mental health support to unaccompanied children arriving in the UK as refugees or seeking asylum.


(The sessions were) a real help when dealing with my refugees and life in general. I feel calmer, more focused, more intentional and gentler with myself than I did before the course.” - Refugee host

“The concepts such as compassionate acceptance, visualising thoughts, mindful breathing , eating, walking were well explained and made it easy to understand and incorporate into everyday life. For the last 6 weeks this course has been a highlight of work week” - Refugee Council UK Staff and Volunteer

“It has been a wonderful course with a very thoughtful and compassionate teacher. I enjoyed taking part in it because it allowed me to take a deeper insight into myself. Thank you” - Refugee host

“I’m very appreciative of the time and energy that you’re giving to teaching us and I'm very much enjoying the course.” Children’s Adviser (Bristol & South West), IUSS Children’s Service

“I found the course very helpful and I’m glad I joined. Thanks a million.” Senior Project Worker, Hertfordshire Refugee Resettlement Project

If you would like to support us in providing community-led mindfulness projects which reach underserved communities such as this we encourage you to consider supporting our charitable work by donating - your support can help to bring life-changing skills to someone in need.

Please click HERE to find out more about donating to Breathworks.