Healing Mental Scars through Sport

Ahmad* is 13 years old. He is sitting with an angry stare in front of the room where the first capoeira class will take place. Like most of the adolescent boys at Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, Ahmad is described as being angry, isolated and a troublemaker.

This behaviour is mostly associated with emotional and psychological problems. Evidence shows that Syrian refugee adolescents living in Zaatari refugee camp reported emotional problems such as being scared, urinating in bed, crying and isolation. Furthermore it’s noted that Syrian female adolescents showed specific problems, with more emotional distress (self-mutilation behaviour, depression, tension, nervousness, grieving, fear) rather than Syrian male adolescents, who exhibited more “troublemaking” behaviours.

“I mean children that are lost, really young children that were dependent on their fathers and, having only grown up a little, lost them. I’ve helped them to get through that. Yeah, for sure they came to training, but most of the time they would just stand there. I’ve helped them to realise that life goes on, that it’s not in either of our hands”, said the camp staff.

Zaatari Camp opened in July 2012 and approximately 430,000 refugees have passed through the camp. According to UNHCR , roughly 80,000 refugees remain in Zaatari, from which 57% are youth and 19.9% are children under five years old. Apart from the obvious limited resources, financial problems and lack of livelihood opportunities, Syrian refugees carry with them the burden of their experiences of war traumas inherently linked to war.

For the women’s capoeira class, Leyla* comes along with her little brother. She is a very quiet and calm young girl. Leyla’s brother has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder that affects language and behavioural development in children. This condition demands extra attention that is noticed during the first class by her trainers. Mental illness can have a significant impact not only on the sufferer, but also on family members.

Being part of the capoeira class seems to be a great opportunity for both Leyla and her brother. A lot of approaches, in refugee settings, are based on psychiatric care only, therefore creative methods to deal with these issues are needed. Sport can provide a crucial route to improving the quality of life, as well as helping with mental health needs sports can have a positive impact in improving the quality of life of this vulnerable community.

In the past years, several reports about mental illness in refugee context, in Jordan have recommended increased access to leisure pursuits. So children can participate in recreational activities, such as sport, social, educational and cultural activities. In Leyla’s case, “we could see a change, not only for her, but also for her brother”, said the trainer. Furthermore, the trainers reported that ‘she was able do each exercise without her brother’. Also, Leyla’s brother was able to be ‘comfortable alone’ without the need of his sister’s constant attention.

The effects of war can be devastating. Refugees, and especially children have witnessed violence, been victims of sexual violence, or they might have seen their family members being murdered, leaving them severely traumatised. Once they arrive to the refugee camp the trauma doesn’t disappear. Part of their lost childhood can be regained through the joy, and normalcy of doing sports. In a refugee context it’s a priority to have safe spaces, so that children can play supporting their emotional and social development.

Got Rights? C4R and Human Rights

Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says “Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities, including capoeira.”

Ok, so maybe we made that last bit up. But at Capoeira4Refugees, we take kids’ right to play very seriously. Let’s take a look at how C4R uses humanitarian and human rights law to create a rights-based approach to programmes for vulnerable children and youth.


Humanitarian law can be a really dry subject but beyond the legalese language and the technicalities, it really is an amazing thing. Humanitarian law began during the battle of Solferino in 1859, when Swiss activist Henry Dunant, horrified by no one looking after wounded men in battle, proposed that a neutral society be established to provide humanitarian aid to soldiers from both sides of a conflict. From Henry Dunant’s activism, the Red Cross and the first Geneva Convention were created.                                                    

Humanitarian law developed throughout the First and Second World Wars, as the atrocities that took place outraged the world. After WWII, the legal basis and aspiration for all human rights was enshrined in theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, conventions and declarations have developed that incorporated not only humanitarian aid for armed men in conflict, but civilian men, women and children.

It is a developing framework, rife with criticism. But it is a very young system that is still yet to be realised into countries’ national laws and every person’s attitudes to others. In 1998, the Rome Statute was created, establishing an international criminal court and defining war crimes and crimes against humanity. There are many flaws in the system of humanitarian law, but its aspirational principles are unquestionable – that every human being has dignity as an inalienable right.


Capoeira4Refugees strives to abide by the highest humanitarian and human rights law standards when delivering psychosocial support to children and youth in conflict-affected areas.

At each stage of their design and implementation, C4R’s social programmes reflect our commitment to children’s rights and humanitarian principles.

C4R recognises the four internationally acknowledged humanitarian principles that include Humanity, Neutrality, Impartiality andIndependence.

These principles, along with rights enshrined within the following international human rights instruments, form the framework for Capoeira4Refugees’ rights-based approach to programming;


To ensure our rights-based approach is effective, we endeavour to have programmes that:

  • Identify the realisation of human rights as the ultimate goals of our work
  • The people who take part in our programmes are the key actors in their own development rather than passive receivers
  • Participation in our programmes is both a means and a goal
  • Our strategies are empowering, not disempowering
  • All processes and outcomes are monitored and evaluated
  • Our programmes focus on marginalised and excluded groups
  • The development of our programmes is locally owned
  • Situational analysis is used to identify issues and that analysis includes all stake-holders
  • Human Rights standards guide the formulation of our measurable goals, targets and indicators in programming
  • Strategic partnerships are developed and sustained.

This approach to programming is based on C4Rs understanding of best practice for capacity development and the creation of successful and meaningful projects.

Capoeira4Refugees Introduction Video

Joyful sounds of singing, music, and laughter aren’t often associated with refugee camps. However, for the past years, our organization has been inspiring these sounds by sharing the joy of capoeira with thousands of children, youth and women in camps and other vulnerable communities throughout the Middle East.

Watch this short introduction to social capoeira

Beyond the smiles and laughter, participants benefit from enhanced resilience, empowerment, social inclusion, and freedom to express themselves through capoeira-based fun and play.

Our vision is to use capoeira to help vulnerable children who are the victims of war and conflict all over the world.

Capoeira4Refugees has executed award-winning programmes with partnership with key partners including, UNICEF, the DROSOS Foundation, Save the Children, the European Community, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Brazilian Government.

Capoeira4Refugees (previously: Bidna Capoeira) is frequently covered in international and regional media including BBC News, BBC Brazil, German Spiegel, and UN Networks.

We are at a crucial moment in the development of Bidna Capoeira, where we still need to secure funding and support for this vital stage of growth and development of our work and activities across refugee camps.
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Power through Play: Capoeira and Women’s Empowerment

“Her brother used to do Capoeira, but when she told him that she would like to try it and practice he yelled at her and he said to her that girls in the family are forbidden to do such activities. When she heard about our project in [the] camp she came to us and explained her situation. Now, after three months, she has been able to confront her family and her brother and she is fighting to go back to school next year.”

The situation for women’s rights in the Middle East is complex and women face multiple, intersecting barriers to meaningful social and economic participation in society. Issues such as forced early marriage, early removal from education, gender-based and sexual violence, social isolation, discriminatory family law and lack of access to legal justice, sexual harassment and a lack of awareness on sexual and reproductive rights.

In the conservative contexts that C4R works in (conflict and post-conflict communities), the issues for gender are exacerbated by a breakdown of infrastructure, family and societal units Resolution 1325 of the UN Security Council formally acknowledges that women are disproportionately affected by armed conflict and are also critical agents of conflict prevention and resolution.

While conflict can increase the need for women to participate economically to support their families, inadequate pathways to formal economic structures, coupled by traditional societal views that women should be family-focused above over considerations, leave women struggling to make ends meet in the informal sector.

Conflict also puts refugee women in a position of subordination and an unsafe environment within camps and host communities, facing daily harassment and abuse that leads them to retreat from social and economic participation.  In its report, Are We Listening?: Acting on Our Commitments to Women and Girls Affected by the Syrian Conflict, International Rescue Committee identifies that safe and welcoming means of participating in public life is needed to empower women to reclaim social space.

Most of the academic discourse on women’s empowerment has centred on economic and political facets of women’s inequality, forgetting the most basic tenets of empowerment, including self-expression, self-esteem and the ability to challenge the status quo of dominant and traditional power relationships.

Capoeira4Refugees uses the sport of capoeira to achieve women’s empowerment by improving psychosocial wellbeing and promoting respect between girls and boys. Arguably, improved psychosocial wellbeing for women is the most fundamental tool for social empowerment. Scholars contend that capoeira can be particularly useful in empowering typically disempowered groups such as females. Original research by C4R and the University of London has demonstrated that capoeira improves self-confidence, physical fitness and self-esteem.

“Women do experience empowerment through their participation in capoeira. Benefits include an increased self-esteem as well as a stronger and healthier body. Capoeira also provides women an outlet for self-expression, exposes them to a philosophy of resistance to oppression and often allows women to engage in community building. Furthermore, women’s participation in this male-dominated martial art transgresses traditional gender boundaries and requires that women take up space in male domains, calling into question perceived differences between men and women.” – Empowerment through cultural practices, Green 2009.

UN Women highlights seven fundamental principles for female empowerment:

 – Establishment high-level corporate leadership for gender equality

 – Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and non-discrimination

 – Ensure the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers

 – Promote education, training and professional development for women

 – Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women

 – Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy

– Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality

Here are what some of Capoeira4Refugees female students have to say about how capoeira has helped them . . .

“But what I like more about Capoeira is that it makes me want to challenge. Especially want to challenge men at Capoeira. I know I’m not doing that yet but I am training to do that. Cos I know that no matter how men get high in the way they think, no matter how educated they are, they always think that they are one step ahead of the women. What I want to do is kick one of them in the face. You know, not to hurt them you know, but to prove a point. That I can do good.”

“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.”

“[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 good 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.”

Perhaps the most eloquent expression comes from one of our girls’ focus  groups

“It makes us feel free –not like a bird in a cage!”

Volunteer’s Diary: Classes in the Refugee Camps in Palestine

A volunteer’s experience of refugee camp life in Palestine – first impressions of the kids classes, the difficulties faced in everyday situations and hopes for the future. The highs and lows of everyday life magnified in this troubled but beautiful nation.

“The house where we were staying was very close to Amari refugee camp, one of the first camps to be established by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNWRA) after the Arab-Israeli war. Bidna Capoeira does classes in the girls’ school there: an institutional-looking collection of white buildings run by UNWRA.

It’s safe to say the girls taking the classes absolutely love capoeira. Capoeira is really special in that it uses physical movement, music and dance to bring benefits such as self-respect, confidence and reduced levels of violence to the often traumatized children – and the best bit is that no-one wins or loses: it’s all to do with engagement.

So while they pranced about and bashed out rhythms on drums and tambourines, I stalked around the perimeter of the roda trying to capture ‘that’ shot. The air was practically alive with joy: for those minutes in which the session took place, it was as if the kids were transported outside of the realities of their lives to more positive place. In the words of Rania, 10, “Capoeira helps me escape all the trouble at home – it makes me happier”: for the first time, I could truly understand that.

The next day we were in Shufat refugee camp, a camp on the edge of Jerusalem, run by the UNWRA as both the Israeli authorities and the Palestinian Authority (PA) think it is the other one’s responsibility to run it. However due to lack of resources UNWRA’s support has rapidly declined in recent years. Emergency services are non-existent, perhaps apart from the low-level presence the Palestinian Red Crescent has in the area. The water supply has been all but cut off, making it a prized commodity here – bottled water is sold everywhere, families who can’t afford it make do by boiling unsafe water and hoping for the best. The camp stinks. Rubbish is piled high in and around skips, one road by the main street has become an unofficial trash dump and its overcrowded with large families having to sleep in one single room.

In the middle of all this is a community school, run by a team of women. The class here is for kids who live in the camp, not just the school’s pupils, so anyone can come. The real joy with the classes here is in how some kids’ parents join in the fun, and how their toddler siblings get a look-in on the action too (usually by banging on a wood-block or tambourine). Again, I was overcome by the sensation that capoeira transported these people to a happier place and let them feel safe. Mala, 12 years old, says she’s never missed a class, and it shows: her technique on the bananeira is impeccable!

While we were there, we talked to a teacher from the school about her opinions on capoeira. She was incredibly positive about it saying that ‘Capoeira is food for the soul,’ and that ‘the children are less violent. They are actually listening now – they pay more attention, adapt better, and learn to accept each other.’
She rounded off by hoping that Bidna Capoeira can continue classes in the future. Indeed, let’s hope they can.”

Girls Stronger Than a Bridge

There is a move in capoeira called ‘ponte’, which is Portuguese for ‘bridge’ – it consists in pushing on hands and feet, stomach facing upwards to keep the back arched. It requires strength, but also balance and control.

“Any time, everywhere, all girls have to be stronger than the bridge,” says Renim, 18, one of Bidna Capoeira’s students at the Arab Sport Center in Jerusalem. Renim is from Al-Issawiya, East Jerusalem, and like many of our students, she grew up in an environment most kids around the world would never dream of. Clashes between youth and police are common in Al-Issawiya, as are home demolitions due to the lack of building permits, which are almost impossible to obtain.

It’s been four months since we started our girls-only training at the Arab Sport Center. Their age ranges from eight to 18, and they come from all sorts of different backgrounds, in a city that has been in the news spotlight in the past few months because of the spates of violence that have been engulfing it. In collaboration with our partner Save the Children, we have provided the girls and boys with a safe space to play, meet and learn capoeira. And they love it.

During our last class, we asked the girls to take photographs of each other playing capoeira, and then tell us to describe their favourite photograph. We wanted to understand what makes them tick when they play capoeira. After training, the girls sat in a circle to discuss their photographs and progress.

By now they have built a close bond with their instructor, Priya, from Sri Lanka. Her passion for capoeira is contagious and she doesn’t miss an opportunity to speak with the girls about growing up strong and independent. She thinks it’s important that the girls have a female instructor, whom they can look to as a role model. “They’ve become a kind of sisterhood, and that’s very powerful,” she says.

Lamar, 10, from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Wadi Joz, told us that thanks to capoeira she feels she can be strong in the face of danger. “Three weeks ago I heard about a girl from my neighbourhood, some boys tried to steal her bag. With capoeira, girls don’t need to sit at home and can learn to defend themselves,” she says.

Shahad, 12, has always been a shy child, but lately she has become the queen of the roda – the circle where two capoeristas face each other whilst others play music and sing. Stepping into the roda takes courage, and this is how capoeira builds confidence in the girls. “Yesterday I performed capoeira in front of the whole school. At the beginning I was nervous, but everyone was amazed by my moves. Some said it looks like I have no bones!” Shahad said.