Meet the Capoeira Trainers: Fares

Fares shares his experience as a capoeira trainer in Raqqa

By Alessia Baker

Fares became a trainer in 2013, he came to know capoeira through Amr Al Berzawi, another trainer that arrived in Al Raqqa, Syria, and started organising classes for children in the house where he lived. The first thing that attracted Fares’ curiosity was that capoeira was the only sport he knew that used musical instruments. Another aspect that he liked was that it was based on equality, it brought everyone together and there were no winners or losers in the game. He also noted that the classes were a way for kids to express themselves and for the adults to understand them and get to know them better.

‘‘It helps kids to express their personality, to have more courage by breaking the fear that they have. In the roda, we can tell if this child is sad, happy, or if this child is shy or courageous’’

Fares recounted how, at first, it was difficult to launch the capoeira training sessions in the camp. It was a new and unknown sport and the children were not interested. However, after a couple of demonstrations, the kids started joining in. Playing capoeira had an incredible effect, kids that were shy and didn’t talk much, let down their barriers and made new friends. Singing out loud the capoeira songs and correcting each other, really helped the children to build their courage and build new relationships.

Fares also added that the training channelled the childrens’ energy in constructive activities, instead of being naughty and wasting time, it also helped them release negative feelings.

‘There is one kid, Mohammed’-  Fares said, ‘who was often angry and aggressive, he is smart and very good at building things, but he used his skills to build weapons with objects that he found laying around. Playing capoeira completely changed his attitude, helping him to resolve his anger and put his skills to good use, he started building instruments like agogo and berimbau, which are used to play capoeira’’.

When asked to recall if there’s something that all capoeira sessions have in common, he answered that when he thinks about the training there is always laughter in his memories. Kids find funny the strange-sounding names of the instruments and their pronunciation of the words.

‘‘Everyone sings in their own dialect when singing the songs. As you know, the pronunciation should be in Portuguese, but our language is Arabic so the song will come out as broken,  the sound of the mixed languages turns out very strange’’

Fares also shared some of his favourite memories from training experiences. One time a boy that had attended the classes only twice, not enough to fully grasp the capoeira moves, returned to the classes and wanted to perform. Fares was astonished to see that the boy’s capoeira technique had greatly improved and found out that the kids had been teaching each other the steps and practising outside of the training times. He was really pleased to see that the kids were enjoying the sport and making it their own also outside class.

Fares al thakhera

Another time when doing a class for kids with special needs, he didn’t expect them to understand the activities, because he had been told that the majority were autistic and had difficulties communicating. He was really surprised when these kids were eager to participate, they enjoyed the sport and wanted to play the instruments. 

This experience and many others have shown him that capoeira really has something to offer to everyone and has the power to bring together all people and improve their lives through music and interaction. 

FrontlineAid: A tech driven solution to localising aid

By: Alessia Baker

FrontlineAid was born from the search for a practical and transparent solution for the remote management of locally owned projects, in order to support the operations of local organisations and facilitate their access to funding.

The background story: challenges to accessing funding 

It is often the case that many local organisations in remote or conflict areas are aware of communities’ necessities, but they lack the access to aid funds to develop their much needed projects. Instead, larger aid organisations control the money flows while falling short of understanding local needs.

A handful of international aid organizations receive ~99% of the world’s aid budget , ~$147Bn in 2017, and very little trickles down to smaller players. Commitments have been made to change this, namely the Grand Bargain was signed by over 50 of the largest aid organisations in 2016, setting a target to direct 25% of aid funding to local NGOs by 2020. However, as we enter 2021, nothing significant has changed.

When trying to attract funding for their projects, small organizations are faced with three fundamental challenges: heavy bureaucracy, lack of transparency, and very little visibility.

Local NGOs simply do not possess enough resources to deal with the load of bureaucratic work and accounting that comes with managing funding and meeting international reporting standards. 

The lack of transparency penalises smaller NGOs as they don’t have the means to track in detail what the funds are being used for, creating a lack of trust from the donors’ side.  

Smaller organisations’ visibility is also limited. Lacking the resources to promote their projects and relying on a small network for support, they are left with no chance of competing with international aid organisations.

The solution: harnessing tech to empower local organisations

FrontlineAid was developed as an online platform to help streamline the processes that are holding back small NGOs from attracting funding. The platform, ‘The Change Makers Hub’, is composed of a number of features that allow activities and funding to be tracked transparently building programs’ credibility and donors’ confidence.  

For example, one main feature is a project management tool that collects quantitative and qualitative data from running programmes. It displays on a dashboard the areas of implementation and the progress made towards clear targets. Best practices such as  the harmonizing reporting 8+3 template have been also adopted to improve transparency and accountability. The platform also functions offline, collecting data that will then be uploaded once there is a viable internet connection.

The platform also functions as a fundraising tool that simplifies transaction processes. In this way, donors will find it easier to donate to specific projects driven by local organisations, instead of allocating larger sums to general targets set by international organisations.

Social media content can also be stored on the platform. Aid workers on the ground can easily upload photos and real-time data to document the progress made. The platform will also be linked to social media accounts (Facebook, IG, Twitter..) allowing to pull content directly from the relevant channels.

FrontlineAid also functions as an App which is easily accessible with a cellphone. The App offers a number of tools which have the aim to connect possible collaborators and volunteers in an effective and user-friendly way. 

The potential of FrontlineAid as a tool to build local organisations’ agency has already been extensively recognised, attracting the interest of government entities and multiple organisations. There is in fact, in the aid sector and the non-profit-sector at large, an increasing need for tech- enabled solutions for better collaboration and resource management.

FrontlineAid is now a pioneer in harnessing the potential of technology for improving aid operations in Syria, proving the importance of empowering localised aid organisations and revolutionizing the way funding is distributed. 

FrontlineAid takes part in BMZ and Kwf Virtual Conference on Digitalisation and Remote Management for Global Development Cooperation

By: Alessia Baker

From the 19th to the 21st of January the virtual international conference organized by BMZ and Kfw discussed how digitalisation and Remote Management, Monitoring, and Verification (RMMV) can help organisations and institutions to improve the impact in global development cooperation.

Under the title ‘Remote Beneficiary Involvement; can it work?’ FrontlineAid was invited to share their experience in using technology as a solution for localization of projects in the conflict-stricken city of Raqqa, Syria.

Ummul Choudbury, Co- Founder of FrontlineAid explained how the organisation first came to be: searching for a solution to improve the activities of local aid organisations after years of dealing with setbacks while managing the NGO Capoeira4Refugees in Damascus:

‘’Out of frustration we looked to find solutions for grassroots organisations competing for around 1% of all foreign aid – out of pot worth 147 billion dollars’’

‘’The Vision behind the technology platform FrontlineAid is to put the local community in the driving seat whilst meeting the needs of the aid system in fragile contexts, such as that in al Raqqa, Syria.

Ummul explained how local organisations are struggling to access funds because they lack the man-power and knowledge to comply with international monitoring and evaluation standards. Lack of transparency and visibility, due to their isolated and disadvantaged position, are also keeping them from receiving funding.  

Chamit Fernando, consultant and former Deputy-Head for UN Habitat Syria, provided a clear picture of the devastation and collapse of trust that the war brought to Raqqa and FrontlineAid’s intervention to support local communities.

Sanctions and restrictive financial  measures made transaction and communication impossible. Strongmen were being used for physical cash transfers, causing the diversion of funds and bad publicity in the eye of the international public opinion, leading to tightened donor restrictions. Decisive steps had to be taken to evaluate the situation and rebuild networks of trust in the area and with Western donors.

To this aim, a remapping and risk-assessment of the areas was carried out to comply with international requirements from the UN, the German government, and Kfw. 

FrontlineAid provided a platform fitted with a system that monitored progress made by following pre-agreed targets. Then, project managers close to the communities were trained to ensure that projects were in line with the needs of the beneficiaries and supported by them. Modules for the expression of community grievances were also introduced to better engage with the community and their requests.

Social media also plays a key bridging role: connecting images and information to the relevant projects and also allowing diasporic communities and individuals displaced by the war’s to recconnect.

Ummul provided a practical example of how the new platform can collect the voices of people on the ground: through its FrontlineAid changemakers node a group of 500 people in Syria (80% mums) was surveyed. They were asked what they most needed at that moment and which local initiatives were best placed to provide these services. By speaking in a language enabled phone the women expressed their need for safe spaces and activities for their kids. 

These points led to online and offline discussions among local board members who decided to fund the development of 10 schools, 4 parks, the planting of trees and city clean-ups, also establishing consortiums for collaboration between organisations.  

Ummul concluded by pointing out the modular nature of the FrontlineAid platform that can be customized to individual’s needs. Designed to meet the bottom-up needs of the grassroots, as well as the top- down needs of donors and project staff.

Workers on the ground will be able to manage and own their own data, uploading geo-tagged images and data in real time by using a smartphone, making it ‘as simple as doing a doodle on a napkin’ to collect and share information about ongoing projects.

‘The collection and upload of real time data, will allow field workers to continue to work without the weight of large amounts of paperwork and reporting, it will also make it possible to act and support communities immediately, on the basis of the information received’’.

Capoeira for all

By Catri Foot

Working to empower children and youth regardless of their gender

Capoeira4Refugees works in conflict and post conflict zones where in each of these contexts a shared experience of conflict and trauma is present. In such environments, the issue of gender equality is exacerbated. Social isolation, forced marriage, sexual violence and lack of access to an education list a few complex situations that young girls in the region could face.  In an effort to provide more opportunities for young girls in the region Capoeira4Refugees uses the brazilian sport of Capoeira to promote respect and gender equality between our programme participants.

In an interview with a school counsellor, she highlighted the impact Capoeira has had on the young women and girls,

“The girls feel that they are all equal in Capoeira. No winners, no losers. They are all the same. So this is why, it makes them feel, “we are the same, you are not more perfect than me, you are not better than me, we are all the same.”

Many trainers confirm this by finding that over time Capoeira students become more accepting of and welcoming to others.

Strong bonds between trainers and classmates also have helped develop inner strength and confidence, so much so that students have been known to train even when circumstances get in the way. Over time the students have been found to have become more comfortable and accepting of each other, with questionnaires citing an overall improvement of 10.56 % and 14.3 % of boys and girls respectively.

For shyer students and girls, the music aspect has provided a quiet outlet of much success until they are comfortable enough to learn to perform some of the capoeira moves.

Female trainers particularly inspire girls as role models of strong women, A student highlights:

[My trainer] can compete with guys and she’s given a very very beautiful image about women and females in general. She can kick and she kicks very well so um, she made me more attached to Capoeira because she knew how to train and she knew what we like and what we don’t. And she could participate in our community as a conservative community in a very good way.

In spite of the burden of balancing strong pressures of society, many girls attributed their love of capoeira to feelings of equality and independence that it gave them.  On the whole increased inner strength has been observed across all groups of students, from to children to adults for both boys and girls. This was confirmed by the general self-efficacy scale, which saw a 11.4 % and 6.8 % rise for girls and boys respectively.

By allowing girls and boys to participate side by side we can fight gender stereotypes, teaching children and youth to see each other as individuals who are able to play sports regardless of their gender. Our capoeira projects enable girls to develop leadership skills, to talk about the struggles they may face as a result of their gender and have opportunities to make their own decisions despite a surrounding culture that doesn’t often allow them to do so.

Fight the invisible virus

By: Catri Foot

There was a little girl who was afraid of the mask because of the wrong idea – the mask leads to death. She cried whenever she saw someone wear a mask, but we explained why we wear the mask and the benefits of it with the use of colours and drawings of masks. She then accepted the idea of the mask and wanted to wear it.”

Around the spring of 2011 a series of pro-democracy uprisings occurred in several largely Muslim countries, including Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Bahrain. This came to later be known as the Arab Spring. In Syria it provoked a civil war in its aftermath,  forcing many to leave the country to seek refuge in Turkey, Greece, and throughout Western Europe. 

Young people of Syria have grown up around so much war and destruction that when the invisible virus came, masks seemed terrifying – a reminder of the traumas of war, a symbol of death.

Our trainers experienced many challenges in convincing the children that these masks didn’t represent a fight against a hugely destructive enemy but could protect from the invisible one, Covid-19. They did this in the form of a series of workshops around twice a month.

One exercise involved the use of sticky notes to enable the children to share their emotions with each other. Allowing the children a safe space to express their feelings and an opportunity to open the dialogue of their concerns about the virus and the world around them.

The second activity involved designing and creating paper masks with the children to further highlight that the mask was nothing to be fearful of.

Muhammed, a Capoeira trainer describes his experience,

“The children found a safe and shared space between them and the coaches. Some coaches drew a house, whilst others drew trees, flowers, sun and clouds to express a children’s love for nature. Other coaches also drew instruments like Agogo and Bandero, as well as writing some Capoeira songs.” 

UnitedNonsense by Ummul Choudhury: What 10 years in the field taught me about the aid sector

There are many academic books written about the aid sector that claim to give a comprehensive overview of the humanitarian world. However, these often offer a predominantly western perspective and lack a fundamental understanding of local realities. UnitedNonsense parts ways with the already existing literature by offering a direct and accessible view of what it means to manage a local NGO in a war zone. The book also stands out for adding a female, non-white voice to the conversation. Ummul Choudhury’s 10 years experience working in multiple countries in the Middle East is a first hand testimony of the obstacles and limitations that one is faced with when working in the field.

Starting from its title, “UnitedNonsense’’, the book wants to nudge large aid organisations, as well as the whole sector, to reflect on their shortcomings when supporting the communities that they pledged to help. It also offers ‘hands on solutions’ to the practical problems that many local NGOs are facing today, as well as exploring the growing potential of technology in empowering local actors.

The book would be of high interest to students from International Development programs that wish to gain real insights into the sector and how they can contribute concretely. UnitedNonsense is also aimed at experienced professionals and philanthropists that wish to reach a deeper understanding of the dynamics within the aid sector and the structures behind the allocation of aid funds.

Ummul’s experience starts in Syria at the beginning of the Arab Spring. She’s working for a start-up, Capoeira for Refugees (C4R), that organises capoeira trainings for displaced people in Damascus. Once the war breaks out in Syria, she relocates to Palestine to work on a number of capoeira projects in the refugee camps, after some time, she also opens an office in Jordan.

Although Capoeira for Refugees’ activities are extremely successful, Ummul has to deal with recurring limitations. For instance, the lack of agency of local organisations in deciding where the funds are allocated.  She explains how she continuously had to adapt projects to fit in prearranged categories of aid support, established by Western donors and high-end humanitarian professionals, what she calls the ‘Golden Circle’.

Another contradiction that Ummul points out in her book is the significant presence of young people from wealthy Western countries. They are the only ones that can afford to volunteer and get a ‘leg up’ in the aid sector towards securing those leading roles in the ‘Golden Circle’. Ummul explains that while the volunteers’ actions are most of the time driven by the best intentions, they were often in contrast with the needs of the communities. Without speaking the language and understanding very little of the refugee’s culture, it was often counterproductive for these volunteers to be present.

The realisation that the NGO in Jordan had come to reflect very closely the same structure and problems that she had criticised throughout her career, pushed Ummul to close the office in Jordan, continuing to support the local capoeira training groups from afar.

Coming to Germany in 2017, Ummul had to face the dilemma of pursuing a career in the humanitarian sector that seeks to act and influence projects from afar, through overarching western organisations. By losing her local standpoint she felt she was losing relevance, following the career trajectory that she had always criticised.  Her search  for a solution pushed her to start writing this very book,  to fill a knowledge gap in the humanitarian sector and suggest ways in which funds can be better allocated by empowering NGOs at local level.

Ummul also co-founded the tech startup FrontlineAid, an online platform that supports local organisations in Syria in improving their workflows, making it easier to attract funds and receive support from online volunteers. In the last chapter of the book, Ummul further details how technology can be harnessed to reverse the power dynamic within the humanitarian sector and build up the agency of local organisations.

At the end of the book, through a series of essays Ummul reflects more in depth on some topics that she mentions in the book, offering her take on a number of issues that are central to discussions in the humanitarian sector.

Ummul Choudhury

UnitedNonsense will be released in the summer of 2021