Sport For Impact

By Marianna Castaldo

Many studies show how large of an impact physical exercise – from running to water sports, from football to aerobics and martial arts, from horse riding to trampoline training, and so on – has on children with special needs. At Capoeira4Refugees (C4R) where we made our mission to spread the martial art of Capoeira to increase the overall psychosocial wellbeing of young people impacted by conflict, with fun, resilience and happiness, we strongly support this belief. As a matter of fact, we often organize Capoeira workshops in a facility, in Al-Raqqa, that is entirely dedicated to children with special needs, with the positive result to witness these young children finally experience a sense of “belonging” to their communities, as well as improving their well-being. Ultimately, a positive side effect of bringing sport practice to children with needs, involves their families and caregivers; they see their kids learning how to interact with one another, socialize and have fun, while being relieved, for a moment, from the daily, strenuous efforts to take care of them. We at C4R will keep investing our time, resources and efforts to organize and host further capoeira training dedicated to children with special needs, in the near and far future.

There are plenty of studies that demonstrate the positive effects of sport practice on children with special needs. In particular, many research papers focus on children in the autism spectrum, and how the consistent practice of physical activities empowers them in developing their social and communication abilities, and improve their physical wellbeing. A research paper named “The Effect of Physical Activity Interventions on Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder”, which included 29 studies on 1,009 participants in the age bracket of 5 to 15 years across various countries, observed the positive improvement in muscular strength/endurance, locomotor skills, manipulative skills, skill-related fitness and social functioning through the practice of trampoline training, horse riding, running, jogging, and aquatic exercises. As we read in the paper: “researchers, in these studies, have considered why physical activity improves social skills, and the outcome was that, when designed appropriately, physical activity programs can provide a fun, safe setting for interacting with other children with others.”[1] Another research on autism spectrum disorders – which included 26 sessions of MMA intervention on 34 children – observed how mixed martial arts training improves social skills, and lessens problematic behaviours in boys with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Parents of the 34 children involved reported significantly higher positive social behaviours and significantly lower negative social behaviours between pre- and post-test. The results of this study increase the understanding of the benefits of martial arts training for children with autism; in particular, the study highlights the importance of providing a social component with physical exercise. The dynamic interactions that occurred during the main martial arts activity utilized many important adaptive social skills, including imitation, verbal and non-verbal communication, turn-taking, and perspective-taking.[2]

At Capoeira4Refugees we strongly embrace the belief, which the above studies, and many others not mentioned here, have proved to be a fact: the use of sport practice actually improves the overall wellbeing of children who are dealing with challenging situations in conflict zone; having special needs definitely aggravates their challenging situations and their demanding lives. Therefore, we have decided to dedicate our efforts also to support children with needs. C4R continuously organize and host Capoeira workshops at a “Center for Children with Special Needs” in Al-Raqqa. The intent is to involve these children into the practice of this ancient martial art with the double intent to make them feel part of the community, through fun activities that are typical of the youth age but that often times are precluded to them due to their specific needs, as well as provide them with tools that can improve their social interactions with their peers.  As a result, it has been reported to C4R, that many of these children have benefited from these workshops, and from the practice of Capoeira itself, experiencing a stronger sense of belonging and inclusivity that has made them feel part of their community. Young boy and young girls, who have participated to our Capoeira workshops, have shared their happiness, telling us how they have been finally able to experience a sense of belonging.

Lastly, a positive side effect of supporting and impacting lives of children with special needs through sport, directly affects/involves families, and caregivers. As a matter of fact, these families can witness their sons and daughters finally experience social interaction with their peers and other adults, who are not in their immediate circle. Furthermore, these young boys and young girls have fun, all while improving common behaviours – both physical and social – that are typical of the autism spectrum.

Our desire and our intent, here at C4R, is to continue investing our resources and efforts in hosting Capoeira trainings to support children with special needs.


[1] “The Effect of Physical Activity Interventions on Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder” http://iapem.gr/article_files/files/2-4-2019-Autism_Research.pdf

[2] “Research in Autism Spectrum Disorder” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1750946721000337

Women for Peace: Community-Empowerment and Capacity-building in Al Raqqa Syria

By: ALessia Baker

Women for Peace is a local civil society organisation operating in North and East Syria since 2017. It’s core mission is to empower and offer protection to the local community in the region, especially women, children and adolescents. Women for Peace is committed to strengthening education, capacity building, together with building economic development to support people’s livelihoods. The organisation’s work is playing an important role in supporting society’s cohesion and development, having an invaluable impact on communities in the war-stricken city of Al-Raqqa. 

The organisation runs its projects by providing learning and capacity building spaces, where community members get a chance to network with other individuals and their own institutions. In addition, their activities are also aimed at providing financial and technical support for individuals to implement projects in a participatory manner, based on the value of collaboration and active citizenship. As a result of Women’s for Peace initiatives, the economic conditions of many women in Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor have improved and work opportunities for unemployed youth have also been created. In parallel, the organization also worked to encourage youth and women to participate in peace building activities to strengthen community cohesion. Central to the organisation’s activities has also been the rehabilitation of spaces for children to play and experience the world around them in a safe environment.

Many activities have focused on improving individuals’ health and building awareness among the population to provide support to vulnerable members of the community. For example, a health care project focused on children and women with diabetes distributing insulin devices and organising awareness-raising sessions. 

Similarly, the ‘Pink Month’ initiative focused on building breast cancer awareness and support. Other projects targeted the youth, educating young people on the risks of taking drugs and, in general, involving the youth in stimulating activities.  A number of projects also revolved around supporting individuals with disabilities, providing children with special assistance and distributing chairs and material to better cope with their disabilities. In response to the more current health challenge posed by the Coronavirus pandemic, educational sessions on the risks posed by the virus were organised and protective masks were distributed in the schools.

Education and sport also play a central role in the organisation’s work, providing better opportunities for local kids and helping them build stronger bonds with each other and their community. For example, the Youth Change Project trained adolescents in agriculture and artisanry. In a similar way, the Change Leaders project developed leadership skills. Another successful volunteer-based project involved students and parents in a cleaning project restoring  schools and public spaces after they had been liberated from ISIS. Additional initiatives  focused on sport activities as a medium to encourage peace and tolerance within the community. For instance, Women for Peace sponsored the first primary school football championship in coordination with the Sports and Youth Committee and the Education Committee, under the name of ‘The Love and Peace League’.

Among the countless stories that exemplify Women for Peace’s success and importance in empowering the local community in Al-Raqqa, a particularly inspiring and touching story is the experience of Ward Hammoud Al-Ismae. Ward Hammoud is a young 22 year old woman with special needs, having been born with only 2 fingers on each hand and foot. Lacking adequate support due to her family’s poverty, Ward Hammoud was always introverted and did not interact with the other kids. The support of the Women for Peace programs changed her life for the better, giving her a chance to find her own place in society: 

‘’The training had a great impact in changing her life and gaining her greater self-confidence and making her possess good capabilities that would qualify her to work in the civil field where she applied to a job in the Civil Administration in Al-Raqqa as a data entry operator and after her success in the employment competition she was appointed and became active in society and able to improve her family’s living situation.’’ – shared Hind Mohammed, Head of Women for Peace. 

At the moment, Women for Peace is working on a project focused on creating safe spaces for adolescents to interact in society. The ‘Bridges Project’ is based out of a youth center equipped with a number of departments: a section for sports, one to develop arts and crafts, a cinema, a music room and also spaces to host capacity building trainings.These departments are supervised by trainers and facilitators specializing in these activities. Around 500 young people from the area will benefit from the project. The organization has many more plans in the pipeline to continue developing the area and open new doors to the local communities.

However, as many local organisations operating in remote and at risk areas, Women for Peace is faced with the constant challenge of accessing enough funds to carry out their important work. The needs of the organisation and the prerogatives of potential donors are not always aligned making it hard to attract funding, which in turn is causing a brain drain and lack of resources for the organisation’s activities.  

The collaboration with Capoeira for Refugees has the aim to expand the scope of the women’s and youth empowerment and will also support Women’s for Peace activities in order for the organisation to continue and develop their impactful  work in the Syrian city of Al Raqqa.

Capoeira4Refugees for Education in Al-Raqqa

By: Marianna Castaldo

Amidst the devastating consequences of the Syrian War, Capoeira4Refugees was able to assist 130.000 students and many young locals and families in Al-Raqqa renovating and giving back safe learning spaces to the community, where a sense of normalcy could have brought back.

Among the many, tragic consequences of the 10-year long conflict, Syria has also faced a dramatic education crisis. Before the crisis, Syria had a strong education system with almost universal primary school enrolment and 70% of children attending secondary school. However, the worsening crisis put an entire generation of children at risk of being lost to and within a cycle of violence. To better understand the gravity of the current education system, and the impact of this war on families and, more importantly, on children, here are some relevant statistics: 2.1 to 2.4 million children are currently out of the education system in Syria, which is approximately half (5-17 years old) children that are eligible for primary and secondary education in the current school year, and another million of those in school are at risk of dropping out2. In 2014, Syria had the second-worst enrolment rate in the world according to the OCHA, Humanitarian Bulletin Syria Issue 2 June 2015. Furthermore, 2 out of 5 schools in Syria cannot be used because they are damaged, destroyed, shelter displaced families, or being used for military purposes. The absence of safe and protective learning spaces, coupled with a shortage of teachers, textbooks, as well as adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities, have all become obstacles to children’s access to an education.

Specifically, in Al-Raqqa, when ISIS took hold between 2014 and 2017, all schools and educational institutions were closed. After the IS forces left, 44% of schools had suffered damage and destruction. According to a report published in March 2021 by the United Nations “REACH” initiative, only half of the children between the ages of 6 and 12, and 12% of children between the ages of 13 and 17, currently receive an education.

Incoherence with our core values and our mission to bring fun, resilience, and happiness to the lives of children in conflict zones, we at Capoeira4Refugees believe in the necessity and priority of education in areas of conflict. Education is life-saving for affected communities and families because it can provide a sense of normalcy to children’s lives, as well as psychosocial support, and it can also strengthen their survival skills and coping mechanisms while saving young children and adolescents from exploitation and harm4; last but not least, education gives hope in a better future which, in the end, is the foundation for building a stronger nation.

These are among the reasons why we at Capoeira4Refugees have been working hard and closely with local agents of change, that are part of our localized network, to restore and bring back some of these safe spaces for children and families, being able to rehabilitate 10 schools and 4 parks in the sole city of Al-Raqqa.

Through the “Al-Raqqa Community Engagement Project”, we have leveraged and engaged our unique and strong network of young people and community leaders, whose development we have started in 2012, with the sole intent to identify and support local community voices and needs.

Over the past 9 years, in partnership with local community leaders, we were able to:

  • run large community events to involve families and children affected by the war
  • develop and run psychological programs with over 200 traumatized children
  • restore critical infrastructure and services, with a specific focus on child-friendly and safe learning spaces – which include school buildings and community spaces – through cleaning, painting, building works, repairing of broken systems and artwork.
  • run large community events to involve families and children affected by the war
  • develop and run psychological programs with over 200 traumatized children
  • restore critical infrastructure and services, with a specific focus on child-friendly and safe learning spaces – which include school buildings and community spaces – through cleaning, painting, building works, repairing of broken systems and artwork.

We at C4R aim to keep working closely with the local communities and their leaders to strengthen and expand our network which, in the end, will bring us closer to families and children in Al-Raqqa, and in Syria, to let them express their needs and priorities, and support their achievement. Our goal remains to continue with our hard work to bring back learning safe spaces, restoring the educational system back to how it was to the community so that they families and children can feel a sense of stability and develop strong skills that they can carry with them for the rest of their life!


1.Assessment Working Group for Syria, ‘Syria Integrated Needs Assessment (SINA)’, December 2013.
2. Schools under Attack in Syria. A monitoring report on the impact of attacks on Syrian schools by the by the Southern Turkey Education Cluster (Syria response) https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/FINAL-Education-Under-Attack_STurkey-Briefing-Paper_2015-09-03.pdf
3.https://www.unicefusa.org/infographic-education-crisis-syria
4.Schools under Attack in Syria. A monitoring report on the impact of attacks on Syrian schools by the by the Southern Turkey Education Cluster (Syria response): https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/FINAL-Education-Under-Attack_STurkey-Briefing-Paper_2015-09-03.pdf

Meet the Capoeira Trainers: Mohammed


Mohammed shares his experiences in Raqqa

By: Catri Foot

Mohammed became a trainer, because of his love of the special sport. There he saw a chance to provide a new culture for both himself and the community that he lives in, as well as a job opportunity that suited him. 

He mentions what distinguishes the support “is that there’s no winner or loser”.

He first got involved with Capoeira at the beginning of the project after Faris, another trainer, proposed the idea to him. “Without my love of sports, and glory to be Allah, it came to my heart. It’s different, it has music, I even heard that capoeira has something spiritual”.

In a meeting with Amer, a trainer with 14 years of experience, they both agreed that the sport leaves the participant continuously learning because every once in a while you discover something new. 

For Mohammed, Capoeira is like a sea, not easy to reach its top, but its malleability allows room for creation in comparison to many sports with limiting and very specific rules.

“Only in capoeira we felt that we could, for example, compose songs by ourselves. Last time, we created a song, “Let’s play capoeira ya 3uyuuni [my eyes] Allah Allah”, this is from Samira Said [singer] song, and we applied it here.” 

He says, “After you know capoeira, you as a trainer or as a capoeira coach can create something for you based on its foundation. In addition, you can improvise, just like how poets improvise, you can improvise from yourself.”

According to him, the role of capoeira is to build trust among and create new friendships amongst children, despite coming from sporadic neighbourhoods. “One child”, he says, “gave the gift of a yellow flower to another child”. Children are taught to accept western cultures and others strange and foreign to them, allowing them to accept and understand other cultures better in the future.

“We were able to accomplish success stories like Taman and her brother. Tamam was displaced from Ba’dinli to Al Raqqa. Her brother feels ashamed of her because she’s sick and some kids bully her. We were able to fight the idea that her brother had about her, that she’s sick, even if she’s sick, so what? At the same time, we attracted the girl to play with us on the roda, I don’t know if you have seen the pictures. It’s unbelievable how she joined us, and this is truly a success story. This is regardless of their displacement and living in a tent. Now as a human, for me I feel like I’m offering something great to them when I see their situation, it’s something that… something that to be honest can’t be described into words.”

Meme, a girl with a disability, has the power to light up the room when she smiles – and makes Mohammed particularly happy. “One situation that made Meme smile is that one time we were playing the musical chairs game, so she was the last one with another boy, so she lost, the boy sat on the chair and she came and forced him to get up. She was so touched. If she didn’t have a disability, she would act like this. So that really impacted me. And her current smile is something that I don’t know how to express.”

Another story that touched him, is the story of two displaced sisters in camps they would teach at. Every day he would see them running from their mother to come train. It turned out she was their mother in law, as their father had been married twice, and they had left her working on the cotton fields. She said, “Once they knew there’s capoeira, they left their work to come play capoeira.”  

It made Mohammed sad because the two girls would go to work on the cotton fields from 6 am in the morning and come running to capoeira in the evenings at 5pm instead of going to school and learning, which wouldn’t have been the case if they were financially stable.

“When we first started teaching kids, we noticed that the boys do not accept playing with girls even if you cut his head [ it’s a way of saying even if you punish the boy, he would still not play with the girl]. It’s impossible.” Mohammed discusses the challenging and sensitive barriers for the children, especially the boys. “They just need some time to accept it, with a couple of days, In’Shaa’Allah we can help them break this barrier”.

From the different dialects on the camp, the nicknames of the organisation from the songs they sung, to breaking a clothing line whilst getting tangled standing on his head, some memories from the training sessions have really stuck out in Mohammed’s mind.

The training sessions have affected him in many ways, giving opportunities for new friendships, deepening existing ones – despite age differences, for example his friendship with the coach Osama. Physically training everyday and practising ginga, has also enabled comfort against pain in his lower back.

Meet the Capoeira Trainers: Ali

Ali shares his experiences in Raqqa 

By: Alessia Baker

It was the harmony and movements of capoeira that attracted Ali to explore the new sport in Raqqa. In a game of capoeira, there were no discussions among the children about who had won, as it often happened during a game of football.

Capoeira has a magic power to entertain all children, everyone enjoyed some part of the sport and they all wanted to join in. The sound of the music and the berimbau are very pleasant and the training sessions made the children always happy. One time, they created the ‘tree of feelings’ and all the kids expressed joy and excitement about playing the game. 

The most rewarding aspect of the sport for Ali is that it offers an opportunity to kids from different neighborhoods to meet, play and, through capoeira, become friends. Playing together helped them form new relationships and find the courage to interact with the other children. Ali shared a memory about a girl, called Reem, with delayed speech that also joined the games:

‘’Reem had delayed speech and we couldn’t understand what she was saying, so we asked her sister to explain to us what she was saying. We let her do whatever she wanted and we didn’t want to hurt her feelings. When she saw her sister and her friends play in the roda, she slowly wanted to join…so I told her to try to join the game of capoeira, we even set up chairs for the musical chairs game and she started playing. The girl really enjoyed the game and started coming also without her sister’

The positive effect of capoeira touched many kids, helping them to open up and develop socially. Ali spoke in particular about a girl that was initially very confrontational with other girls and they almost got into a fight. Ali explained to her that they were all there to enjoy themselves and have fun together. The girl gradually calmed down and the situation improved.

Ali continued by adding that playing capoeira provided inspiration for the kids to express themselves and play kids’ games. Their psychological well-being has been deeply scarred, as the children have lived most of their lives in war-stricken cities.  War has always been present in their surroundings and they often mimicked it in their games – ‘when they wanted to play, they didn’t have a game, so they would play a war game, that’s their game, they don’t have any other one’ – explained Ali. 

One time, Ali recalls, they organised some capoeira activities in schools but some children couldn’t join the physical activities because they were injured. However, throughout the session the trainers asked the kids some questions, making them feel part of the activities. During the game they were chosen as winners even if they were not able to participate fully, and this made a huge difference for the kids.

These moments of acknowledgement really helped them feel more secure and cared for in their communities. It was also extremely rewarding for Ali to be able to make a difference in these kids’ day by giving them some attention and support.

Ali also shared that capoeira helped him to maintain his fitness and is really happy about the new connections he established with the kids. When he walks in the street, the kids shout out to him showing him the moves that they have been practicing from the previous session. A particularly fond moment for Ali is when the kids almost get scared when he does a ginga bringing forward both hands instead of just one, “He doesn’t know how to do ginga”- scream the kids and then they all start laughing.  


Meet the Capoeira trainers: Abd

By: Catri Foot

This sport is different from all the sports. Whoever follows it or watches it, it’s obvious that it’s different from all the sports

Our Capoeira trainer Abd, thinks sports in general are perfect for entertaining oneself, especially children. He agrees with Fares, another trainer in the sense of justice that arises from having no winner or loser – no chance for a discouraging defeat.

Capoeira he says breaks the barrier of shyness for children, developing a beautiful cooperation and assistance between each other.

Abd first learned of Capoeira through Fares, another trainer and a friend from elementary school. Meeting the trainer Amr Al Berzawi and adjusting to the ideas of Capoeira was unusual and surprising for him, as he didn’t know much before about sports. As was the idea of teaching a sport with elements of music, movements, and dance to young children.

In 2013 things changed and Fares told him about the new project and Abd had begun to appreciate the sport for its unique combination with music. And after all, it provided him with a stable job opportunity.

Capoeira gave the children he trained opportunities to escape the mental and social crisis that came about as a result of war, particularly affecting children. Many sought refuge in Nothern Syria, for example in Al Raqqa there were many cases of asylum. Provinces like Al Raqqa and Rif suffered and many got mentally tired.

In capoeira, I’m realizing that it improves their psychological state and gets them out of this crisis and most importantly, it breaks the shyness barrier

He says the sport encouraged boldness, gave the children room to explore and control their emotions – reducing tussle and feistiness, and attracted them to play in front and with each other creating new opportunities to meet others.

For him, just like Fares, the impactful moments have been in the kid’s center where they hosted contests and supported them. They’re kids with autism, so when they smiled it was so powerful.

Abd noticed a child standing on the end during a school performance, not wanting people to make fun of him because of a facial and leg distortion. He chose him and brought him to the front, asking him a question to earn a gift and making him really happy.

These happy moments happening in their lives are something awesome. It’s a feeling that the coach and all the other guys feel… It makes you feel like you made something, that you accomplished something big… This feeling helped us more than the kids, it helped us a lot. You see the happiness in a kid’s face is really priceless

Abd agreed with Mohammed, another trainer, that children began to become more open to playing with each other regardless of gender and improvements were seen in the courage of the children.

Also, another thing is shyness, getting out of their shyness, playing instruments, when we first brought the instruments, the kids didn’t want to play. They were shy; they were some kids who didn’t want to play at all. And there are kids, despite the weirdness of it [playing instruments], they wanted to “give me a beat on the tambourine” as they say. The tambourine is the pandeiro [portugees translation of tambourine].

A while ago, whilst practising capoeira moves negativa, esquiva, povera with the kids, Abd didn’t perform correctly because of an injured knee. He heard the four kids he had taught the movement whispering to each other, “The teacher is messed up”. He says it was only because his knee was messed up.

The training courses affected him in many ways, fitness for one – but most of all for changing his opinion of children. After years of not listening to children, hating children’s voices, he suddenly found children who had taken a special place in his heart.


Abd Alkarim Alaabed