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Meet Marwan, Changemaker fellow, Jordan

Marwan Ali Ghunaim, a self-proclaimed Capoeira evangelist, was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates and partly raised in Jordan. Marwan, who additionally has a Palestinian background, started his story with capoeira when he saw the sport on TV in Jordan over 20 years ago.

“I was impressed by what I saw and felt a deep desire to learn it! I had already been interested in both martial arts and dance and had done some taekwondo and break dancing in the past… so I thought what better way than to combine the two. Capoeira was it!”

Unfortunately for Marwan, there was no place that taught capoeira where he was living. However, in 2010, he was fortunate enough to meet and train with two capoeira gurus. One was Ms. Espolita, a capoeira master and healer and the second – Mr. Garnize, the founder of the Capoeira school CDO (Cordau de Oro) in Dubai.

 

Creating opportunities where there are none

From that point, Marwan’s passion and interest in capoeira continued to grow, which motivated him to establish the first ever capoeira group in Qatar in September 2013 with only a few members. The original members trained hard and the community that once was a few grew into a community of more than 200 people, participating in trainings and gatherings.

“Even after I left Qatar,” Marwan said, “I was so happy to see that the group remained active and continues to grow to this day.” Marwan recalls, “We once had a member of our group, Ahmed who was only able to train at the hotel where he was working, but was not allowed by the management to do so. Me and the other members did not think this was fair, so we rallied behind him and stood up for him. As a result, not only did the hotel management allow him to train, they offered to let the group train on the hotel premises. We were all very inspired by the outcome and grew closer because of it and capoeira played a big part.”

In 2014, he traveled to Bahia, Brazil for a month to study capoeira and understand more about the culture behind it. While in Brazil, he learned and trained in Capoeira Angola, the more conservative form of Capoeira, which focuses not only on the physical exercises but also on traditions, culture, values, unity, community cohesion, and resistance against injustice. He also met with many capoeira masters and developed a newfound appreciation for Capoeira and its culture. “The experience changed my life!”

Building connections, breaking down distrust

Upon his return to the Middle East, as a dedicated capoeira evangelist, Marwan created Capoeira United Middle East with the aim to bring capoeira players in the Middle East together.

“I wanted to promote the spirit and values of capoeira for unity and collaboration of diverse groups and peoples in the region.”, Marwan says. During this time, he worked closely with other organizations representing a range of areas including technology, education, and art. He received support from the Ministry of Education thanks to the program’s importance on the future of children’s education.

Marwan is also a passionate connector and networker. He was able to bring together 7 different capoeira schools in Dubai who had never communicated and who viewed each other with mistrust. “I envisioned creating a common platform for all the different groups to join as a common capoeira community.” He did this by first organizing a workshop for each teacher from the different schools to train.

“To my dismay”, Marwan says, “only 3 of 7 schools showed up. The second workshop though proved more successful and all 7 schools attended. To this day, the capoeira community continues to grow and thrive. I am so proud of this achievement!”

Marwan continues to bring together capoeira groups throughout the Middle East by convening events, workshops, and festivals. He is now aiming to invite capoeira schools in the Gulf and hopefully in a year or two have a regional capoeira event in Jordan. He also performs capoeira at public events and has participated in many performances throughout the world including those in Qatar, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Jordan, Spain, and Brazil, the birthplace of capoeira.

 

Making sense of losses

He also participated in a capoeira tournament in Azerbaijan where he won one round and lost another. “Despite having one win and one loss during this tournament, it taught me that Capoeira is not about winning and losing. Rather, it represents an art form to express oneself. I was so inspired by this realization and created a series of social events in Qatar called Mystic Earth that incorporated values taught within the Capoeira and promoted community building focusing on mind and body wellness and awareness.”

In 2015, Marwan first joined Capoeira4Refugees (C4R) to teach capoeira for refugees in Jordan where through teaching capoeira, he provided psychosocial support to vulnerable and traumatized refugee children. His first training opportunity took him to al-Azraq refugee camp in Jordan where he assisted Brazilian Capoeira Master Indio. “This was the first time I worked in a refugee camp and it made such a deep impact on me!” Marwan has since worked in other refugee camps to teach capoeira for C4R, including in the Za’atari refugee camp in July 2017. He also went to Irbid a local host community as a volunteer. He describes the amazing feeling he got seeing the children’s passion and excitement grow as they expressed themselves through capoeira and he aims to go back there soon and continue teaching them.

 

Is it magic or just capoeira?

Once a week, Marwan also trains mentally disabled children at the Nour Al-Barakah Garden in Amman, which was opened in 2012 by a group of mothers of teenagers with disabilities.

“Kids love and enjoy the classes, and I can see how confident these kids become as they develop their physical and mental abilities and how excited they are to learn and practice. This process hasn’t been easy for me though and I find it can sometimes be difficult to make progress and ensure that students are understanding the previous lessons, concepts, and movements. Nonetheless, I am so amazed by the progress and growth in the children in my classes. I recall one student who rarely spoke to anyone else before starting classes. After a few classes though, I saw him change and become much more engaged, active, and happy. This is the effect that capoeira can have!”

Marwan is the newest Awardee and Changemaker to join the C4R Changemaker Programme and is excited to further grow and develop his exciting capoeira projects as he continues his work as a capoeira evangelist.

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Meet Amar, Changemaker fellow, from Pakistan to Peru

Capoeira for communities with limited access to education

Amar has always been a humanitarian. First, he was going to be a doctor, then a computer scientist. Then a teacher of business, art and ethics. Somehow, he managed to find his way towards being a Capoeirista. From his experience living and growing up in Pakistan and his recent experience working in Peru, he has focused on showing the positive impact that capoeira can have on women and children.

“It becomes particularly relevant to develop personal and social skills in vulnerable children with no access to such education.”

Nonetheless, Amar says that things are slowly changing for the better as education becomes more accessible to all and with renewed efforts, there will be more girls and women playing and teaching Capoeira in Pakistan as time goes by. “I am sure that Peruvian and Brazilian female Capoeira teachers will be instrumental in helping to address this shortfall in conjunction with Pakistani female student Capoeira teachers.”

How Capoeira and Pakistan fell in love

Amar first introduced Capoeira to Pakistan in 2007 as the pioneering teacher of this art, back when no one had any idea what it was. There was no cultural frame of reference beyond the acrobatics, music or references to a Tekken character available to connect to this ritual for most Pakistanis.

“Children and adolescents from the nearby slums or other impoverished areas who saw what I was doing seemed to intuitively understand the nature of the game. They would join in with myself and my students having fun, jumping and playing, making cartwheels and music and singing exuberantly. It was an amazing experience!”

This experience though underscored the harsh reality of children forced to grow old before their time so they could survive harsh conditions of living. “It was for this reason that I became convinced that the need that this art and ritual could play a pivotal and positive role in their lives. Capoeira calls out to its own. Those who speak its language even though they have not been taught by any mentor. They have learned Capoeira’s lessons themselves through life’s harsh experience.”

Passion for Capoeira’s historical roots

“I discovered that this community of people, the Sidis in India and Pakistan, they play a primitive version of the berimbao, as a part of their socio-religious ritual. We Capoeiristas, use metal wires while they still use organic plant or animal fibres. In South Asia, the instrument is called a Malunga. Historical connections to capoeira culture are easily discernible.”

Amar’s focus is not solely the sport of Capoeira, but the broad and colourful musicality, history and culture of Capoeira. This has led him to research the presence of communities in Pakistan that have kept alive traditions (such as making instruments or ritual songs) relating to Capoeira as well as associated Afro culture in South Asia on a wider level. Cultural preservation of these skills is necessary and Amar is planning to give workshops, gather and keep alive the specific knowledge of these communities and share them with the youth. He wants to create centres for education and training, including the theoretical, but also the vocational aspects.

Lyari in Karachi, while also being one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Karachi is also well known for its violence, lawlessness and poverty. This slum is the historical center for the long resident urban Sidi population in the South of Pakistan. The Sidis are descendants of Bantu peoples settled in the area and whom have retained intimate connections to their African motherland through music and ritual. Lyari is also well known for producing athletes in football and boxing. However due to the historical marginalisation of Afro peoples in South Asia, this immense potential is wasted due to lack of opportunities of funding and training.

In his work, he would like to exemplify how Sidi culture links to capoeira, make allies, conduct awareness and technical workshops, help to observe and document rituals alongside more practical measures such as movement and music classes of Capoeira.

Experiencing change firsthand

Amar discusses: “A wonderful paradox that has kept me deeply curious about Capoeira since I started playing almost 20 years ago. I have seen the same delight as mine on students faces as they discover more about what Capoeira is and what it means to them.

A game that offers a respite from their daily struggles where they can recover the spontaneity of childhood games. In so doing they find a chance for an education and inclusion within a safe and encouraging community so they can learn and grow as part of something positive on their way to becoming productive and healthy members of society.”

Since that beginning over a decade ago, Amar has personally ensured that Capoeira in Pakistan grows into the small nascent community of students and student-teachers from all walks of life present today.

“Orphans, diplomats, refugees, artists, students, business people,  street children, professionals, foreigners, musicians, teachers and locals all training and performing together and collectively learning as part of a diverse community that not only accepts differences but knows they are a strength and not a weakness.”

 

Plans for the future

Amar has been lucky enough to experience much of the world through Capoeira. He has done all he can to help others progress on their way as good friends and teachers have helped him along.

Being a Changemaker Fellow has helped him to achieve his dream of dedicating himself to utilising the transformational power of Capoeira in changing the lives of those who need and understand it. To the dispossessed and marginalised wherever he may be able to reach out to them through his work. Capoeira is most meaningful and useful to those who suffer prejudice and injustice.

The mission is still the same as it ever was, though now Amar is part of a global network that can do so much more then he or his students ever could on their own.

“I have known from the very beginning that my journey in Capoeira would be a lifelong one. For now, it is enough to deepen my studies and continue to share knowledge in the hope that the students that I have taught and will teach, continue to grow and on their own path share what they have learnt in the spirit of giving to others what Capoeira has given to them. A family and a community in which they can grow and learn positive living.”

Amar is currently working in Peru and collaborating with other Peruvian Angoleiros who share a common vision of growing an active community of Capoeira Angola engaged with social work. Connecting Brazil, Peru and Pakistan through cultural and educational exchange is thereby part of a bigger plan.

After initiating and establishing work in Peru, he looks forward to returning home to Pakistan to expand and fortify connections between and within Brazil, Latin America and South Asia inside the roda of Capoeira.

 

 

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Meet Åsa, Changemaker fellow; Sweden

First steps in the art of Capoeira

Åsa first started Capoeira 30 years ago with a well-known Capoeira master Peixinho, with Grupo Senzala in Amsterdam in 1987. ”It gave me such a good feeling to to do the movements and I knew that I found my passion.” Åsa continued to train in Capoeira but  with another teacher named Paulo Siqueira in Hamburg. That same year, her native Sweden’s first capoeira workshop was held in Stockolm by her and Paulo’s teacher. After that the Stockholm Capoeira Association was formed.

Two year later in 1989, she moved to Gothenburg, Sweden to study theater science at the local university. During this time, Åsa and her teacher participated at the Falun Folk Music Festival three years in a row showcasing Capoeira movements. She also formed a capoeira group in Gothenburg under the leadership of Capoeira Master Dodo called Adaba. Åsa invited several other capoeira masters to become involved in the Capoeira scene in Sweden and she helped form groups around the country.

In 1994, Åsa visited Salvador, Brazil and trained with prolific Capoeira masters like Joao Pequeno, Pe de Chumbo, Jogo de Dentro and Claudio.

”That experience impacted me in such a profound way; it was during that time that my passion truly grew and I knew that this was my calling.”

Upon returning to Sweden, Åsa became acquainted with Capoeira masters Rosalvo, Roberval and Laercio, who she had invited to Sweden. In 1997, she invited M Roberval to join her and Grupo Filho de Angola was established.

Constant work to develop her passion

Åsa continued to pursue opportunities to practice and promote Capoeira and regularly visited Mestre Rosalvo and Contra Mestre Suzy in Berlin and also traveled to various international events throughout Europe. A pivotal time in her Capoeira career happened at Academia Jangada in Berlin, where she started to learn capoeira angola in depth and began to work seriously to understand this complex art form.  In 2002, she graduated as Treinel by Master Rosalvo and his Capoeira group Vadiaçao and in 2004, Åsa and her group in Stockholm became part of the FICA (Fundaçao Internacional Capoeira Angola) under the direction of Master Cobra Mansa, who began annually visiting Stockholm. It was at this time when Åsa began traveling regularly to Bahia, Brazil to advance her capoeira training. Later in 2004, she launched an international youth exchange project in partnership with Sida (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) in a suburb of Stockholm, Fittja, which is a primarily immigrant and refugee community. Young capoeiristas from FICA, who had spent time in Massaranduba Alagoas in Salvador, Brazil, were invited to teach in Fittja.

In the summer of 2008, Åsa began working as a social worker in an outreach program in the Stockholm-suburb of Tensta (another majority immigrant community) that launches Capoeira activities and classes. Her capoeira group there began collaborating with the district’s crime prevention efforts among young people and saw the positive effect that Capoeira can have on youth.

”I saw amazing transformations of children who I was teaching through teaching Capoeira. Children became more disciplined and expressive through Capoeira. The change was so inspiring!”

Capoeira as a tool of deep change

Åsa went on to work as a physical education teacher in a school in Tensta, which is also one of Sweden’s most socially charged schools. Her capoeira group also began to engage with local associations in Tensta and over the years, they organised a series of events including a carnival and a talent show held during the annual Tensta Market. ”What I realised was so important to the success of these initiatives,” Åsa recalls, ”is that the the participants’ families are involved and supportive.”

The group in Tensta also runs different orchestras during school holidays involving teachers and students’ families in addition to summer camps and various open workshops in the park with dance, percussion or maskmaking. For the past four years, Åsa has also been running the Women Power Conference, which was organized with the aim of strengthening female leaders in the art of capoeira. Female masters and teachers of capoeira angola like Tisza, Gege and Adi with contra master Suzy were involved in this programme and came to Tensta in Stockholm several years to represent strong examples of female capoeiristas. Another aim of this initiative was to put Tensta on the map through the international capoeira network involving local organisations.

As Åsa worked as a physical education teacher for 20 years at various suburban schools in   Stockholm and has worked with and mentored many young people and their families. Åsa’s students are from all over the world, and through them she has come to know about different cultures that would otherwise be completely foreign to her.  She also discovered through her travels and intercultural work that capoeira and afro-brazilian culture has connections with the islamic and arabic culture. In fact, the Somali-Swedish community in Stockholm has become a part of her heart.

Difficult work is necessary work

Today, Åsa is employed as an outreach youth consultant through the Labor Market Administration (Arbetsmarknadsförvaltningen) of the city and the European Social Fund where she works with outreach to establish relationships with young people between 16-29 years in segregated areas that suffer exclusion. Her work in this capacity is to motivate and be a link to authorities and other support organizations who these young people oftentimes depend to finish school or to find decent work. Åsa works in suburbs of northwestern Stockholm, which unfortunately suffered from various riots and similar incidents the last years. With sadness, Åsa has followed several of the young people who have grown up in these areas, who are no longer with us. One after another, several of these young men have been murdered by other young men.

Åsa’s aim today is to work systematically with relatives and other close networks and young people directly in these suburbs to offer mentoring support by her outreach work.

”Despite the many challenges, it is so stimulating – to work in a politically-managed organization where my observations, methodology and results affect political decisions in my city.”

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Meet Dania, Changemaker Fellow, Jordan

“I will keep on living my dream and continue to work with refugees.”

We are pleased to announce our first female Changemaker, Dania Abu Halima, 24, Amman, Jordan.  Dania was awarded the Capoeira Changemaker Fellowship based on her commitment and passion to supporting women and girls in her community to have the opportunity to be physically active.

Whenever I had free time I would volunteer or train for C4R, even just train on my own whenever I could.”

Dania joined C4R as a student as part of the Ruwwad Project Partnership, a female only capoeira class. She went on to have 1-to-1 training with one of Capoeira4Refugees female trainers, developing the skills necessary to become an assistant trainer.  Dania’s presence as a female trainer in both Azraq Refugee Camp and Zaatari Refugee Camp has been inspirational for young female Syrian refugees.

For women, and girls it is especially important that there are females that are taking a leading role in civic and cultural activities; who can inspire their peers and their communities to seek positive change.

“I’m especially happy to see a female Changemaker in our programme. In the Middle East context, and exacerbated within the refugee context, women do not have anywhere near as much power as men.  To have female role models and female engagement is essential if this generation of young people are to grow-up to be the empathetic, emotionally intelligent leaders of tomorrow that the region urgently needs” Ummul Choudhury, CEO.

Dania is looking forward to growing her own community project. She dreams large, and as a Changemaker, she knows that the future  is hers for the making.

“Never to stop dreaming, this is the new rule! Honestly, I want to become something really big in Capoeira! something huge! Becoming Mestre in Capoeira! [laugh] Still, l have a lot of training to reach this one but C4R is not going anywhere. Then, I would love to open a school in Jordan. If God gives me the strength and the chance, I will go for it. I am looking forward to keep working with C4R and build something better. And even if it was not to happen, I will keep on living my dream and continue to work with refugees.”

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Meet Ahmad, Changemaker Fellow; Palestine

 

“This land . . . It doesn’t belong to Israel, Palestine, or anybody else. That’s the problem.”

Ahmad continued, “When you throw a stone, you’re not throwing a stone. You’re throwing your life away.”

Ahmad, 26, is a Palestinian born and raised in Shuafat, a Palestinian refugee camp, located on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  His childhood and daily living under occupation has shaped him to become the person he is today–compassionate, reflective, and driven with a passion.

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“Shuafat didn’t use to have checkpoints when I was young,” Ahmad explained.

“Then one day, the Israelis stationed a couple soldiers at the entrance. Over time, some boulders were moved in front of the soldiers to ‘protect’ them from rocks being thrown at them. A few soldiers eventually turned into an army truck, and a permanent gate was built. I now go through this checkpoint at least twice a day for work,” Ahmad said.

Throughout our evening together, Ahmad continued to share his experience living under Israeli occupation with me.

“The Israelis did bad things, but the Palestinians also did bad things,” Ahmad said somberly.

“If you see those things with your own eyes, then you’ll believe me. Don’t blindly believe what the books tell you. Everyday is war here; it’s just hidden,” Ahmad went on.

While this young Palestinian lives daily amongst grave injustice, prejudice, and racism, his calm composure and determination for peace struck a chord in me.

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Ahmad grew up with his younger brother and his mother in Shuafat refugee camp. His father died when he was little. His mother, who works as a special education teacher, became the primary caretaker and breadwinner of the family.

Ahmad laughed as I told him that he was one of few Arabs I know with a small family.

“Yes, only one brother.” He said with a grin.

While Shuafat refugee camp started with roughly 3,000 people in 1965, it holds more than 24,000 refugees today according to UNRWA statistics. With a rapid population growth, refugees in Shuafat not only face challenges such as restricted mobility, overcrowding, and limited resources, but also the perils of living under Israel’s militarism. According to Ahmad, the police are often sent into Shuafat in disguise, dressed in civilian attire to obtain information and arrest anyone for the slightest misconduct.

“Palestinian boys who threw stones used to get arrested for just a few days. Now they are kept in prison for years.” Ahmad said.  

Throughout our discussion, Ahmad patiently described to me what life as a Palestinian is like. For instance, Ahmad alerted me that Palestinians have two types of identification cards– green and blue. Unfortunately, neither of them grants full citizenship.

Ahmad carries a blue ID—following his mother’s status—which grants him greater freedom of mobility beyond the occupied areas compared to those holding green IDs.

 

 

 

“Palestinians with green IDs cannot work in many places or buy property,” Ahmad explained.

As we walked along the road, Ahmad continued to highlight the tangible, yet overlooked, ways that Palestinians are ostracized in society, including different license plates, government buildings, schools, and the prominent separation wall surrounding the West Bank that divides Israelis and Palestinians.

When enclosed by a wall created to evoke fear, isolation, and hatred, capoeira became the medium that Ahmad uses to cut across the aisle, bridging seemingly irreconcilable differences.

 

 

 

 

“I didn’t really know any Jewish people until I played capoeira with them,” Ahmad said.

Since the majority of people who were first introduced to capoeira in this context were Israelis, many capoeira workshops and events are held in predominantly Jewish areas, leading Palestinian capoeiristas to come together over their shared passion for this sport.

While walking along Jaffa Road, a major street in Jerusalem, Ahmad suddenly stopped and pointed to an old building to our right. “That’s the school where I first learned capoeira!” Ahmad exclaimed.

Ahmad first learned how to play capoeira from his cousin eight years ago. “I wanted to do the flips,” He recalled, “so my friends and I started to learn capoeira from my cousin.”

“It was a beautiful moment for me when I first started playing. We would come here at night to train, take the last bus that goes towards Shuafat, and walk the rest of the way home.” Ahmad said with a fondness for these past memories.

“My friends eventually stopped playing, but I kept going,” Ahmad told me proudly.

Playing capoeira in this context proves to be difficult for many Palestinian young men.

“After turning 18, the boys would go to college if they can, where they usually stop playing capoeira. Family issues also cause them to stop because boys who cannot continue with their studies must work. Balancing work with capoeira is hard, really hard,” Ahmad spoke from firsthand experience.

Ahmad himself started working part-time since he was 16. He now works fulltime as a waiter in a hotel six days a week, beginning his shift at six o’clock every morning.

Despite a busy and demanding schedule, Ahmad dedicates his only day off to teach capoeira at Dar Aytam Sina’ia (Orphans Industrial School), an all-boys orphanage located in Bethany, West Bank.  

Dar Aytam Sina’ia is home to over 60 boys under the age of 17. “Not all of the boys’ parents are dead. Some of them are here because they have family issues at home,” Ahmad explained.

As Ahmad and I walked across the brightly-lit hallway inside the orphanage, young boys eagerly sprinted to greet their teacher. Several boys also raced each other towards the cabinet to fetch the key for the room where capoeira classes are usually held.

With the key in hand, the group of boys led the way, leaping up the stairs, giggling and shouting along the steps until we reached a large room located on the third floor of the building. Old gym equipment and machines lined up against both sides of the wall, and an open space with mats on the ground was situated towards the back of the room.

After settling down, Ahmad began to call out, “Roda! Roda, shebab!” (In capoeira, this call invites participants to gather around together in a circle in preparation for exercises or games.)

Upon Ahmad’s call, twenty-five energetic young boys ages ten to sixteen pounced on the mat, barely able to contain their excitement and chatter. The energy in this classroom was unparalleled to any other groups of students I have visited in the past. As Ahmad had explained to me earlier, these boys do not have much to do in their free time, hence they are always full of pent-up energy.

Throughout the next hour and a half, the boys continued to compete for Ahmad’s attention, often pulling on his sleeve and urging him to watch them demonstrate capoeira movements.

Amidst the chaos, Ahmad gracefully moved across the room, from corner to corner, and corrected his students’ postures or movements. He also individually assisted newer students who were less coordinated, flexible, and confident about their bodies.

After class, 16 year old student Asla who has lived in the orphanage for six years said to me: “ I love capoeira because there is no fighting involved. I also like Ahmad a lot… I hope to become a capoeira teacher like him one day.” 

I later learned from other students that Asla practices capoeira everyday and often teaches his friends along the way.

 

 

As our car pulled away from the school’s parking lot after class, Ahmad’s students yelled from the open window above, urging him to stay.

He chuckled, waved a goodbye and told them he would see them soon again.

“These boys stayed in the orphanage for so long and can’t go out. This is really bad for them,” Ahmad said as we started our journey back to Jerusalem.

“No dad and no mom… That’s really terrible. I keep coming back because of that. Bad people come from places like this where nobody tells them who they can become. 

As a result, They try to build something in life on their own having missed out on everything in life. But most of them get lost to drugs, crime, and end up in prison,” Ahmad observed with a sadness in his voice.

Although the reality of life as a Palestinian is difficult beyond our imagination, Ahmad tries his best to see the current predicament with positivity and hope.

“Capoeira makes you feel peaceful and energized. In capoeira, we teach our students that ‘we kick but we don’t hit each other.’ Why? Because the kids will apply the same logic in life when they do other things. They will always remember: ‘I will kick, but I will never hit.’ This is why I want everybody to play capoeira,” Ahmad expressed.  

Aside from working with boys who desperately need a role model in their lives, Ahmad also dreams of becoming a firefighter someday.

“There are four Jewish fire stations and only one Arab one in Jerusalem,” Ahmad explained.

“Firefighters work 48 hours and rest for the next 48 hours. I think this schedule will be good for me. I can also teach capoeira more often this way,” Ahmad calculated.

So far, Ahmad has successfully passed the intensive physical exam required to become a firefighter.

“The physical exam was very tough. On the first day, I ran two kilometers under seven minutes and did many pull-ups and sit-ups. On the second day, we did drills on the beach. All of my teammates stopped during a challenging exercise because they were too tired, but I kept running to the finish point carrying buckets of sand on a stretcher,” Ahmad beamed as he retold the story.

Unfortunately, Ahmad was unable to pass the written exam. “The test was in Hebrew. I never studied words related to firefighting. I didn’t even know what the word ‘hose’ in Hebrew was!” Ahmad exclaimed with a burst of laughter.

A hiccup, like many other challenges in Ahmad’s life, did not stop him from pursuing what he aspires. Like his early days in capoeira, Ahmad persevered even when his friends gave up after hitting a rough patch.

As it turns out, nobody else was able to pass the written exam either. Rather than to sit and wait for something to change, Ahmad now volunteers in the fire station once a month on his holiday in hopes of earning an opportunity to officially join the team one day.

Before gearing up to put out fires or rescue injured passengers from a car wreckage as a firefighter, Ahmad plans on continuing to help heal the invisible wounds of young Palestinian boys who might someday walk with greater confidence and resilience because a persistent teacher once showed them that they matter.   

 

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Meet Abdullah, Changemaker Fellow; Turkey

 

“I stood the whole time,” Abdullah said.

“From 6am to 5pm? Just to get your Turkish ID?” I asked.

“Yes,” Abdullah replied. “But I’m used to standing. We lined up for bread in Syria for half the day.

 

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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?

One.

“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 Clash Royal, 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.