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.
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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