The Journey To Freedom

Healing trauma through sport and physical activity.

The last year has probably made us all reassess our relationship with the concept of freedom. With restrictions placed on our movements and instructions to stay at home, that fundamental human right to freedom was brought into question.

For people trapped in modern day slavery, being exploited on a daily basis, this basic and fundamental human right is something taken away from them.

Even though slavery was abolished in the UK in 1833, modern day slavery and exploitation are still prevalent in society today.

Modern slavery and exploitation exist underground, behind closed doors, hidden from view. This makes providing accurate data on the magnitude of the issue difficult, masking the number of people who are victims.

The data that can be collected reflects that these crimes are taking place and people are being exploited in this country across many different industries. According to data from the ONS, modern slavery offences recorded by the police in England and Wales in the year ending March 2019 increased by 51% from the previous year. Modern slavery can affect anyone in society. Almost a quarter of the 6,985 potential victims referred through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) at the end of 2018 were UK nationals.

Victims of modern slavery became even more hidden and isolated as a result of the pandemic with referrals to the NRM decreasing by 14% in the first quarter of 2020, coinciding with the country entering lockdown.

How do you come out the other side after living through and experiencing this level of trauma? 

How can sport and physical activity be utilised to support victims of modern-day slavery and exploitation?

This month, we talked to two organisations committed to supporting survivors of modern-day slavery and exploitation where physical activity is playing a hugely positive and impactful role.

Ella’s is a London-based organisation working with women who have survived trafficking and sexual exploitation by providing safe house accommodation and long-term community-based support to help survivors build safe, independent lives.

At the heart of everything they do is community and friendship and an organisational culture that believes wholeheartedly in addressing health and wellbeing through a holistic approach that very much incorporates sport and physical activity.

“We really value fitness. Sport and exercise have been part of what we do, staff and survivors, since we started – from boxing to running, dancing and yoga. It’s not just about physical health, it makes a huge difference to a person’s wellbeing and sense of self.”

Emily Chalke, Co-Director of Ellas’s

Ella’s works in collaboration with a variety of different partners to deliver physical activity initiatives including The Running Charity who support the women with run coaching.

Although Shirene, originally from an Eastern Mediterranean country, has only just turned 23, she is recovering from prolonged abuse and exploitation. As well as providing her with a safe place to live, Ella’s are helping Shirene access the mental health support she needs to recover, and to build the life skills and confidence she needs to live independently.

Shirene has recently been able to do sessions with The Running Charity, and this is how she feels.

“Wow, exercise is amazing. When I exercise my brain works better, all the power is in my hands to change everything.”

Isn’t that amazing? 

Negar and Gemma have also been taking part in the sessions.

“I didn’t want to go outside before, and didn’t even enjoy walking, now I am running, and I love it!”


“It’s helped me to feel better in myself, I feel confident and healthy. Setting goals and achieving them gives me a sense of accomplishment.”


Also partnering with Ella’s is The Movement Charity, a London based charity that exists to restore the right to exercise for every woman.The team at Ella’s work closely with each woman to create a tailored recovery plan. ‘These plans always include aspects of physical and mental health, as well as social confidence and community,’ says Ren, Head of Services at Ella’s. ‘The sessions run by The Movement Charity help with all of those things.’

Marie is a survivor of trafficking who Ella’s have been working with for two and a half years. She’s been having personal training sessions with The Movement Charity.

“The sessions are so fun, and are boosting my confidence so much, it doesn’t feel like they [the personal trainer] are here just because of my past. They are like a friend; it feels so normal.”


During the coronavirus pandemic, Ella’s started running online activities to help the women stay active and connected including HIIT sessions and yoga and dance sessions. These sessions can give a real sense of structure to the day or the week and provide not just opportunities for physical activity but much needed opportunities for interaction.

The experiences of the women Ella’s work with are harrowing.

Despite this, Amy Church, Head of Fundraising and Communications at Ella’s, says that there is still a great deal of joy to be seen in the community.

“Women come to Ella’s from all over the world, bringing with them experiences of different music, different cultures and through moving together in things like dance, they are able to express and share a part of their identity.”

Amy Church

The very act of providing access to sport and physical activity enables survivors to feel empowered to take part showing them that they have the right to enjoy exercise and deserve to do something for themselves.

For some women, going into a café and asking for a coffee is difficult because it is a new concept, something they have not had the permission to do so before.

Sport and physical activity are a way of saying yes, YOU are worthy of accessing these things.

Sport and physical activity enable the learning of new skills which then shares the message that other people care enough about the individuals to share their knowledge, building a very important sense of self-esteem and confidence.

A really important aspect of the work Ella’s does is helping survivors build strong networks around them so that they can go on to live independent lives surrounded by a community of safe contacts that they can plug-in to – communities that can be built and established through things like sports clubs and exercise classes.

Social connection is really important; learning to build relationships and actually trust people through positive interactions supports survivors to live in the world. We’ve perhaps all been walking more in the parks and open green spaces during lockdown but for survivors of modern slavery and exploitation, public spaces can be intimidating and feel very unsafe. Ella’s aims to create positive experiences in the outdoors so that the women can benefit from being outdoors in the fresh air but also learn to trust that they can access these spaces.

Without that proper support, survivors can be left vulnerable and open to further exploitation.

The TRIBE Hike for Freedom: Fitness and Wellness programme is a structured six-month programme of fitness and outdoor activities helping survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking to improve their well-being and regain their freedom through fitness and nature. 

For participants who have completed the programme to date, the positive impacts are overwhelmingly clear. 

“You’re free like a bird. When I climb the mountain, I feel like everything that I have gone through has ended. Everything about my life is going to be ok… The mountain makes me feel free, it gives me freedom.”

Hannah was one of the first women to join the TRIBE Hike for Freedom programme. At the time, she was being supported by the Helen Bamber Foundation to help her overcome her previous exploitation, manage her PTSD and develop the tools so that she is no longer tormented by her past. 

When Hannah joins the TRIBE Hike for Freedom training sessions, she sees other women around her who she can relate to and who have experienced similar things. She walks alongside driven and inspirational women who make her feel strong. 

The walks and activities help Hannah to forget about her previous exploitation and regain her sense of freedom.

Hannah has thrived with the opportunity to take on a leadership role during the walks. Whilst leading the way she sings and laughs. She sees it as her role to keep the other women going and stay positive.

“I was proud that they chose me to do that. I didn’t go to school, but I was able to lead. It was about making people happy.”

Most of all Hannah feels that she’s not alone. Spending time with other strong women who have had similar experiences makes her feel like she has a family. They are women from all over the world, but they understand each other and support each other in a unique way.

Hannah feels that if she can climb a mountain, she can do anything she puts her mind to. Her message for the world is:

“Help other people. Be happy and be yourself.”

Overall, the programme has seen incredible positive impacts on all participants’ physical and mental wellbeing, boosted as a result of the feelings of freedom, self-confidence and community which come from taking part in a physical challenge and building relationships through movement and sport.

“People have told me ‘you can’t do this’, ‘you can’t achieve this’, ‘you’re not this’, ‘you’re not that’, but after today, nobody will tell me ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘you can’t achieve this’. This has topped it all for me.”

Hike for Freedom Participant

Watch the video here for an insight into the pilot project and its incredible impact.

The initiatives that both Ella’s and the Tribe Freedom Foundation are delivering are things that have a lasting and sustainable impact on the people they work with. These are stories of empowerment, the strength that can be found in community and giving back control.

These are stories of care, compassion, collaboration, the power of movement and ultimately, the journey to freedom. 

*some names have been changed*

For concerns and support, contact the National Modern Slavery helpline on 0800121700

Find out more about the work of Ella’s and the work of the TRIBE Freedom Foundation.

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