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.”

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