Tarek Live in The Hague: “Counter hate, free your mind”

Can sport, dance and play really be strong enough to counter hate? Tarek: “Peace starts with having the freedom of mind to see things differently.”

Read Tarek’s Hague Talk or  watch it on YouTube and get inspired!

“A few days ago I was driving into Azraq refugee camp built for over 130,000 refugees in the middle of the desert in Jordan. A barbed wire fence cuts into the sand, 1000’s of shelters as far as the eye can see, back to back.

I’m stopped at the fence; a soldier asks to see my security clearance. There are lots of young men hanging around, kicking up the desert sand. Syrian refugees aren’t allowed to work in Jordan and there is nothing to do.I don’t really see any girls, after about the age of 11-12 they aren’t allowed out of the shelters. Many marry before the age of 15.

So, … how did I end up here, a German guy in a desert refugee camp?

In 2007 I was running a successful gym but I was overworked, my girlfriend had just left me the weather was awful. I wanted and needed a meaningful change. I’m actually half Syrian, my Arab roots took me back to the Middle East. I was practising my very cool capoeira moves on the streets of Damascus singing and playing the instruments.

Local kids joined me – they brought their friends, the friends brought their friends and some brought their parents. – I decided to rent a space and set up classes for them. – From these beginnings, I started projects in youth prisons, with Iraqi and Palestinian refugees and in women’s safe houses reaching out to thousands students.

It’s not a surprise that Capoeira speaks to the young people I work with today. In Capoeira their are no winners and their are no losers, everybody can join regardless of age and gender.

It was born out of slavery in Brazil in 16th Century and a way of keeping the spirit free, even if the body was confined. That powerful history inspires in opening minds to new cultures today creating a sense of equality, tolerance and dignity.

One of my first projects was with Iraqi refugees in a playground in a UNHRC school. We had about 30 boys. The girls trained separately indoors. Everything was going fine until suddenly it started to rain heavily … but stones and rocks!

We had to run for it … I asked the students what was going on – I was told, “ it’s the Syrian kids around here – they’re stupid and dirty” – The teachers told me exactly the same story. I asked their teachers if it was ok if the Syrian kids joined us – they said, “They hate each other and will never play together.”

The UN school was in a really poor area of the city, the Syrian kids were of course jealous of the new Iraqi refugees, their new school, their new activities.

The second week we managed to get three Syrian kids to join the class. Actually they just played the music and the Iraqis practiced movements. –The girls joined during the last 5 minutes for the music. This time – no stones.

The following week the Syrian kids brought their friends… They still didn’t want to mix with one and other – but capoeira doesn’t work like that. Everyone has a partner, you shake hands introduce yourself and train the movements …you keep swapping your partner and end up practicing with everyone.

By the fourth, the Iraqi and Syrian kids were practising together even before the class started. The teachers couldn’t believe their eyes … But… is it so surprising ? When doing sport, music and play together?

For refugee children and their families, one of the first things to be lost is a sense of dignity. And it is that loss of self worth, and control over one’s own life, which makes people so vulnerable to anger, to frustration, mental illness, and to choices that can lead to violence and extremism. Having a way to express themselves, to feel a sense of agency, self-worth, is essential for rebuilding broken communities, broken people.

(HEY!) Lets go back to Azraq refugee camp.

I saw Ahmed there last week, ..he trains capoeira with us –Ahmed fled Aleppo with his family after his home was bombed and destroyed. His three sisters, and mother travelled with other desperate Syrians for three months, running out of food, water, losing all their money to bribes. Two men in the same truck as him were shot and killed.

As Ahmed finally made it to the border a soldier stopped him, beating him to the ground crushing his head into the sand with a boot and breaking his nose.

He was so angry when I first met him, ready to go back to Syria and wanting to fight. Ahmed is 16 years old. He is now a very different boy, walking on his hands and practicing music – he wants to be a teacher when the war is over. Kids like him; they desperately need positive outlets to deal with their violent experiences.

My vision is to bring together the capoeira community and its fans to support as many projects like this as possible – to reach out to young people like Ahmed.

Peace, when it comes to the Middle East, will come to a generation with little to lose… and normalised to violence.

It is through the safe expression of their emotions, building new relationships based on trust and the joy of playing with friends, that the trauma created by the violence of what they’ve been through can begin to heal . . . There are other choices, and it begins first with having freedom of mind.”

“In Capoeira I forget the war”

For 8 year old Aisha the excitement for Capoeira starts way before the training and fills her day with a thrill of anticipation. Another example of the startling effect that the classes have in building hope for kids in conflict zones.

‘When there’s a Capoeira class I wait for it the whole day and count every second before I can finally go there.’
Like her around half of the kids participating in capoeira training sessions in Al Raqqa are girls. With a wink their trainer, Pulo do Gato, says that they are more reliable than the boys and faster at picking up new movements and songs. He says that ‘there are also a lot of girls who really like the moves and are eager to get better at acrobatics.’

A safe space to learn and play

The children don’t have school, rocket attacks are a daily danger, and kidnappings are rife. In such a stressful environment children are desperate for structure, and a safe space to play. Some children like Mariam, 8, have not been to school for two years. The capoeira classes give her a safe space, she says “in Capoeira I forget the fear and anxiety about the war. It’s as if there’s no war.’

Capoeira also provides a way of opening young minds to history and culture. 11-year-old Huda particularly likes learning more about another culture through Capoeira: ‘I like that we’re learning something about another culture that is different. We learn about the Brazilian culture and we learn Portuguese through the songs.’

A family activity

The classes are also a family activity, and help the children make friends and have something to do outside of the classes. Two of the girls, Zahra and Leila, sisters, eight and 10 years old respectively, have been coming with their two brothers since the programme started in June and never missed a single class. They practice on the streets, showing off their new skills and teaching their friends when there is no session. Zahra once took a pandeiro home to learn to play the rhythm: ‘We played the pandeiro all the time and didn’t want to stop’ she says.

There are also those students who are a lot shyer, and need a lot more courage to try some-thing new. Fatima was one of them. At first, only her brothers came to the class and she stayed at home, but they liked it so much and always told her to come with them and have fun together that around two weeks ago she agreed to come as well.

In class she stayed close to her two brothers and didn’t speak a word and when the others started doing the ginga she watched them wide-eyed. It took a lot of convincing on the part of Pulo do Gato to get her to participate, but once she had started a big smile appeared on her face and stayed there at least until the class was over. Even her brothers were surprised to see their sister joining in!

Capoeira Workshops in Zaatari Refugee Camp Jordan

“I can’t wait to introduce the children of Zaatari camp to capoeira and give them a place to play and express their frustrations in a safe and healthy way.” This is what Tarek Alsaleh, Founder of Capoeira4Refugees, said when he first came to teach capoeira workshops in Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan. After these first workshops in 2013, Capoeira4Refugees strengthened its presence in Jordan in close cooperation with partner organisations. 

“Having worked with the charity Bidna Capoeira (now Capoeira4Refugees) I know they have the professionalism, innovation and dynamism as an organisation to help in many of the world’s problem areas, said Dr. Roger Hearn, Regional Director Middle East and Eurasia for Save the Children International.

“In Capoeira I forget the fear and anxiety about the war. It’s as if there’s no war.’ These are the words of Mariam, an 8-year-old girl from Al Raqqa, Syria.

When the Syria crisis drove more and more refugees to neighboring Jordan, Tarek Alsaleh came to Zaatari Refugee Camp to give capoeira workshops to help desperately vulnerable refugee children trapped in a cycle of war and poverty. The sport, play and music of capoeira is incredibly effective in helping children develop the confidence, resilience, and mental strength they need to help them deal with the constant fear and instability of living as refugees. Capoeira4Refugees subsequently expanded its presence in Jordan with regular training sessions in Al Azraq Refugee Camp and community classes in Al Azraq town and Amman.

Capoeira4Refugees is an innovative UK charity that started in Syria 2007. It uses the Brazilian dance and martial art of capoeira to provide essential psychosocial support to young people who are the victims of war and conflict.
Capoeira has a great impact on entire communities. Everyone can join in regardless of gender/age or ability. This form of sport therapy breaks cycles of violence and creates confidence, self expression and friendship based on mutual respect. It is non competitive – there is no winner and there is no loser.
 The charity now has projects running across the Middle East in Palestine, Syria and Jordan, with partner organisations such as Save The Children, CARE, UNICEF and UNRWA.

“Agencies like UNHCR and Save the Children work so hard to help children suffering nightmarish conditions in the camps, often with no school and no safe spaces to play. Our projects complement this essential work by linking counselors and capoeira experts to give kids the chance to be children again,” says Tarek Alsaleh.

The Syrian Revolution

The Syrian war began in 2011.

It brought tragedy and hardship to this wonderful country and it’s people. We were forced to leave Syria.. but some continued…

In spite of the recent unrest in Syria, many of our classes continue, staffed entirely by our local trainers.
 This model for Capoeira Social Enterprise continues to offer free social programmes and broadens skills of local youth, providing them with paid employment. All profits have been reinvested in developing trainers and offering more classes, helping to improve the physical and psychosocial well-being of thousands of children.

Bidna Capoeira (now Capoeira4Refugees) has been teaching capoeira in Syria since 2007. To date our sustainable social enterprise with local trainers has taught over 6,000 kids.
 The programme started by building interest in capoeira by playing and offering free one-off training in public spaces. A regular group was soon established with locals and international students. People who couldn’t afford the classes contributed their time, helping to build and promote the group. The classes covered the costs for two part-time trainers, allowing them to offer an ongoing ‘Free 4 Kids’ programme to underprivileged children. Our ‘batizado’ festival was an annual highlight, drawing visitors and volunteers from 25 countries growing awareness and demand for paid performances.

Over the first two years our group and ‘Free 4 Kids’ classes expanded, building local recognition of capoeira as an effective means for improving psychosocial wellbeing. We were approached by international organisations such as UNICEF, UNWRA, Terre des Hommes, and Cartias. They funded classes at juvenile institutes for girls and boys, at a children’s hospital, UNWRA schools, and an eight month programme at Al-Tanf Refugee Camp.
“The equality, respect and unified spirit of capoeira gave the children joy and renewed confidence, building their resilience to face the challenging circumstances.” Patrizia Giffoni, Child psychologist, Al-Tanf Refugee Camp
By developing a Training of Trainers programme we were able to build our capacity to offer more social programmes. Our programme included classes in first aid, programme planning, teaching skills, child psychology, social media, and languages.

Social media proved a breakthrough, with our local trainers producing their own videos which we now use to help market to potential programme sponsors.