Abdullah is a Syrian refugee who fled the war in his country to live in Istanbul, Turkey in 2016.
“If I didn’t leave, the government would’ve taken me away to the army and sent me to fight in Aleppo, ” Abdullah said.
Abdullah was born in Damascus in 2000 to his parents, the youngest of four older brothers. His father died when he was thirteen. Abdullah’s eldest brother moved to Iraq. His older set of twin brothers are still trapped in the Syrian army, and his other brother, who managed to flee the army to Turkey, recently left for France in search for asylum, leaving Abdullah and their mother behind.
Everything went well for Abdullah in Syria before the war broke out in 2011. Two years into the war, their family received a mysterious knock on the door late at night.
Before the family could respond, the door was kicked down, and Abdullah’s older twin brothers were both taken from their beds and sent to two separate army bases to fight for the Assad regime.
“Before the war, Syrians had to fulfill two years of army service,” Abdullah told me. However, since the war started, soldiers like Abdullah’s twin brothers have been trapped in the army for more than two years due to the ‘current state of emergency’—as the government coins it.
“My mom was scared that the government would come and take me away. I ran into soldiers on the streets and sometimes they demanded to know who I was, and why I wasn’t in the army. I always told them all four of my brothers were already serving in the army. You can’t take me, I need to go home and care for my mom,” Abdullah recalled.
After three missiles were launched near his school compound in 2015, Abdullah was kept at home from school for almost a year.
Soon after, one by one, Abdullah’s neighbors, boys his age, were forcefully conscripted into the Syrian army and sent to fight in Aleppo.
“No one ever comes back alive from Aleppo,” Abdullah said solemnly.
In order to prevent the government from taking her remaining boy away, his mother decided to bring him to Turkey where her older son, Othman, has resettled after deserting the Syrian army. To protect Othman and stop government officials from searching for the missing soldier, the family used to make up stories that he was killed in the war.
In January 2016, Abdullah managed to cross the border into Turkey, just three days before the Turkish government banned Syrians from entering the country
Sadly, Abdullah’s challenges did not end here. Reality differs starkly from television, as he phrases it.
When Abdullah and his mother first landed in the Istanbul Ataturk Airport, they found out all their baggage had gone missing. Othman, frustrated at the situation and poor service and attitude from the airline, began to raise his voice and concerns to the operational staff on the ground.
“I had to hold Othman and tell him to calm down. He was so angry,” Abdullah said. Eventually, the airport security came out with tasers and threatened Othman to back down.
The family went home that day and spent their first night in a new and foreign country with nothing but each other.
The second time they returned to the airport in search for their bags (after a first failed attempt), they were shown into a room overflowing with more than 200 bags. “Look for your bags among the pile,” the airline staff barked. After a long search, they finally found their belongings.
“What you see on TV makes you think Turkey is a paradise. . . We were lucky to come to Turkey, but we are sometimes treated like sheep here,” Abdullah said.
Sheep—animals told where to lie, where to rest, where to eat, and where to sleep—was the metaphor Abdullah chose to describe his situation and that of many other Syrian refugees during our conversation.
Abdullah’s airport incident is one among many inconveniences and maltreatment of Syrians in host countries around the world. The reason Abdullah had to line up for hours with 3,000 other Syrians the day before we met was that the Turkish government had suddenly imposed a regulation that all Syrian students had to obtain an ID in order for their final high school examination to become fully officialised. Some of Abdullah’s friends did not have proper documents for the ID and will have to redo an entire year of schooling.
“The police also waved their tasers at us at the centre, like we were sheep,” Abdullah recounted.
A three-day final high school examination for Syrian refugees, which was originally scheduled to take place mid-June, was also rescheduled without warning over this past weekend. How many days did the Syrian students have to study for those exams as a result?
“I just gave up,” Abdullah said, throwing both hands up in the air. How could he study for chemistry, physics, Turkish, English, mathematics, and other subjects in one day?
Furthermore, Abdullah was recently asked to provide previous school records from Syria to complete his profile in the Turkish governmental database. “Where can I find these records?” Abdullah said skeptically.
Despite the many challenges Abdullah faces daily as a refugee—minority, young, unemployed, and family scattered around the globe, he tries to do social good in the way he best knows how: by teaching capoeira to Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugee children who have gone through similar experiences.
As a young boy in Damascus, Abdullah learnt how to play capoeira from his older brothers.
He fell in love with the sport the more he played it. “My brother used to train the advanced students in capoeira, and I would help by leading the beginners, in Raqqa,” Abdullah recalled.
Raqqa is Syria’s northern province.
“I looked like a baby back then, like a student,” Abdullah laughed as he pointed himself out of the crowd of people from the picture on his phone.
All four of Abdullah’s older brothers along with their mother play the game of capoeira. For Abdullah, capoeira has become a symbol of family and community.
Throughout our time together, Abdullah continued to show me numerous photos, videos, and interviews of capoeira classes in Damascus before the war. His excitement and pride of being a young capoerista in his then-peaceful country was radiant and inspiring.
“You can see many Syrians living in this neighborhood,” Abdullah told me.
In Istanbul, before Othman left for France, the two brothers teamed up and continued their work in Syria by teaching capoeira to refugee children in Small Projects Istanbul, a local community centre serving over 150 households.
“Look for their headscarfs,” he continued. If there are patterns, those women are probably Turkish, but if they have a plain color, they are Syrians,” he explained.
As we walked along the neighborhood, Abdullah pointed out all the Syrian stores and families along the way. We also stopped by a tuck shop ran by his student’s father to remind his students that capoeira class is starting soon.
“Youssef, the kid at the shop, is my oldest student in class. He loves capoeira so much that he usually waits for me early before class starts since his father’s shop is located in the same neighborhood. Youssef has improved so much since he first came to class,” Abdullah said with a twinkle in his eye.
“There were about six kids in our class when we first started last October,” Abdullah recalled.
Now on average, ten to twelve boys and girls show up to Abdullah’s class each time.
After Othman left for France, Abdullah decided to singlehandedly continue conducting capoeira classes, commuting two hours each way to and from the centre.
When Abdullah and I first entered the centre for class this evening, three young boys shouted his name from a distance. They raced towards Abdullah, clung onto him, and fought for their teacher’s attention.
Abdullah is really good with children. When class started, he quickly got their attention, organized them into lines, and began leading capoeira warm-up exercises in this tiny cramped room in the basement of an old building.
Abdullah glanced over his shoulder at me with a grin while pointing out the newly added mats on the ground, a luxury that was not here during my visit last December.
Joy and laughter soon erupted and filled the tiny space as the rain fell quietly outside.
“Abdullah always keeps calm when we are noisy and misbehave. He never gets angry with us.”
Ayah, a nine year-old student in Abdullah’s class beamed and told me.
She continued, “I love capoeira because it is a game about a team. We do the movements together when the music starts.”
Not only does Abdullah manage to teach class once a week at the center, he has also recently added a second capoeira class to give his students another much-needed opportunity to engage in sports, music, and play.
Abdullah wants to help boys and girls in his class to communicate more effectively with each other and to break down gender stereotypes.
“When I was a kid in my country, they always separated boys and girls. The boys played on one street, and the girls played on another street. The first time I saw a capoeira roda in Damascus, I thought to myself: ‘Wow, what is this? The boys and girls were standing right next to and playing with each other.’ This idea grew within me, and now I want to do this with my students,” Abdullah explained.
Since Abdullah has to go to school on Friday (Syrian students go during the weekend), he filed a request from his teachers to allow him to leave his last class early to arrive at the center on time for capoeira.
“The principal’s assistant saw a video of me on the Internet teaching capoeira. So he told me it was okay to go early!” Abdullah proudly exclaimed.
Aside from teaching capoeira, Abdullah hopes someday to become a computer engineer.
During our coffee break, Abdullah showed me ClashRoyal, the only game installed on his phone. After demonstrating how the game worked, Abdullah giggled and told me. “I should delete it; it’s too intense.”
Although the young man sitting across from me has gone through so much for his age, he still exhibits a childlike, curious, and fun spirit in a relaxed environment.
“I love capoeira because it’s the one hour in which I can forget everything and play with kids,” Abdullah said.
“What is one piece of advice you’d give to people who are interested in starting their own social capoeira projects?” I asked Abdullah.
Without hesitation, Abdullah replied: “I will tell them to start now. You will feel passion and pride when you do it because not only will it make you feel better, but it will make the kids so happy. . . and the faces of the kids. . . their smiles. . ..” Abdullah trailed off as a smile spread across his face.