Monday, September 16, 2013

Refugees learn the ways of Taekwondo

The Syrian refugee children halt straight in a row, and when their Korean Taekwondo instructors shout out directions, the children break into martial arts kicks in the air, smiling with glee.

Taekwondo has arrived at the world's second largest refugee camp, and a team of Koreans Taekwondo instructors says their martial arts training is doing much more than just exercising some elaborate moves, it is implanting discipline and self-respect in kids devastated by their country's civil war.

"I have seen a lot of anger inside the hearts of the kids here," said Charles Lee, a Korean Taekwondo master who heads the group of five Koreans giving lessons twice a week to around 50 boys in Jordan's Zaatari camp. "I see a lot of kids with stones in their hands ready to throw them at anyone."

"I want to teach them to have more sportsmanship and to change how they think. I want them to be peaceful and to help their neighbors and communities," said the 53-year-old, who has lived in Jordan for the past 10 years, working as an acupuncturist. He began the taekwondo program a month ago with the help of U.N. relief agencies.

Kids make up the bulk of the 120,000 Syrians who escaped the military assault of President Bashar Assad and now live in the dusty refugee camp near the border with Syria. About one-sixth of the 65,000 children and teens join the camp's U.N.-run schools, leaving many shiftless. They run barefoot under the boiling sun, often playing their most popular game: throwing stones at each other.

Ibrahim al-Hamidi, 13, from Syria's restive southern city of Daraa, said Taekwondo "is teaching us good manners, while making us stronger."

"It's also good for our bodies and muscles and it teaches how to defend ourselves," he said.

Ali Badran, 13, also from Daraa, said: "Taekwondo is amazing."

"Once I go back to Syria, I want to start teaching Syrian students," he said.

For now, the taekwondo training is limited to boys, but will include girls at a later stage. The Koreans are also training 10 adult refugees — mostly former soccer coaches — to give the classes when they leave.

Without school, the children "no longer have any system in their life anymore," said Mohamed Rashid, one of the Syrian coaches. "But we've found that an exercise routine which can change children. Maybe even more than schools, because they actually enjoy it."

He said he sees the effect. The boys deal better with their friends, for example. "In one month, their bodies have changed a lot. And they are also more in control of their minds."

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