Refugee camp, or boot camp? Shatila's Jiu-Jitsu academy
I had the chance to travel to Lebanon for the first time last year. I went on this trip largely to work with some friends on activist and cultural projects.
However, we came in the midst of a severe economic crisis that had left people struggling to obtain basic financial services, as well as the tense general election campaign.
The port, which was the scene of one of the most terrible catastrophes in recent Lebanese history, was also close by when we were in Beirut.
The port explosion's effects were felt throughout the nation, and the city was still working to rebuild the damage that had been done.
"Because some of my siblings were born in Somalia and fled war and persecution, the significance of Shatila struck a chord. I quickly noticed parallels between my hometown and this refugee camp"
I was particularly aware of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, including the Shatila refugee camp, as someone who focuses on the Palestinian cause. The camp was established in 1949 to offer to house Palestinian refugees who had been uprooted by The Nakba in 1948 when Israeli forces drove over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes.
In my work, I previously investigated the 1982 Sabra and Shatila Massacre. This was a three-day campaign of rape, torture, and killing carried out by the Kataeb Party (Phalangists) in coordination with the occupying Israeli forces against Palestinians and Lebanese residing in the Shatila refugee camp and the surrounding Sabra area.
It was one of the deadliest days for human rights in recent memory as a result of the massacre, which culminated in the slaughter of up to 3,500 innocent citizens, many of whom were women and children.
When provided with the opportunity to visit the camp and speak to some residents, we couldn’t resist. However, our first trip to Shatila was overshadowed by the assassination of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces and cast a sombre mood.
We manoeuvred around the camp's dangerous patchwork of exposed wires, which are to blame for scores of deaths by electrocution every year.
A group of children approached us during our visit to the Shatila Refugee Camp and requested that we film them. A talk with one youngster, who was about 9 years old, took an unexpected path.
He picked up a flattened plastic bottle and held it in the direction of his friend as if to make it evident that he was about to begin interviewing him for our camera.
After asking about favourite colours and the appreciation of toilet paper, he asked, "How many years has Israel occupied Palestine?" His friend struggled to answer before giving a response of "74 years". It served as a sobering reminder that residents of all ages are aware of the sensitive subject of occupation. We later found out that the boy was Syrian, not Palestinian.
Since the start of the Syrian Civil War, there has been an inflow of Syrian refugees into the Lebanese refugee camps, blurring the distinction between Syrian and Palestinian refugees.
These communities have come together in their fight for justice and human rights despite their differences. However, there are still many obstacles and restrictions for refugees in Lebanon in terms of their access to education, career opportunities, and travel.
The few who do have official documents are only given "Palestinian refugee in Lebanon" passports. Sometimes, even fundamental rights like inheritance are withheld. These accounts of injustice and marginalisation drove us to act and support these communities.
My close friend Mohammed, a seasoned Jiu-Jitsu competitor and coach, accompanied me on the trip. We devised a strategy to raise revenue for Shatila's assistance programmes while also organising an intensive Jiu-Jitsu boot camp for young children.
"Growing up in North London in a predominantly refugee neighbourhood, that was also my family background," Mohammed recounted.
"Because some of my siblings were born in Somalia and fled war and persecution, the significance of Shatila struck a chord. I quickly noticed parallels between my hometown and this refugee camp."
Mohammed's keen understanding of the challenges that develop in such settings derives from his personal experiences with peers and school friends back home throughout the years.
"With many cases of rampant bullying, fights, and violence, these environments tend to encourage a developing child, particularly young men, into a fast-paced life of crime and drugs. Due to a lack of economic prospects and resources, individuals choose quick money-making tactics such as stealing or drug trafficking out of desperation, with teenagers frequently seeking protection and prestige from gangs. Living in these conditions causes unhappiness and tension, as well as low self-esteem," Mohammed told The New Arab.
"Peers and older people can readily influence and, in some situations, manipulate youth. Drugs can also be used as a coping method to alleviate the psychological suffering associated with poverty. A never-ending loop in which the distinction between victim and perpetrator is easily blurred."
Mohammed's martial arts expertise helped him understand the potential for sports to give an alternative path for young people confronting similar obstacles.
"Having been a martial arts practitioner since the age of nine, I began teaching karate to new students in my academy at the age of 12," he explained.
This passion for martial arts, together with his desire to make a positive difference, inspired him to arrange a Jiu-Jitsu boot camp for the young children of Shatila, providing them with a healthy outlet as well as the opportunity to acquire discipline, respect, and self-defence skills.
More than £15,000 had been raised a month after the independent fundraiser was established, and our ideas were taking shape. We devised a method for allocating the aid across long-term initiatives after working with community leaders to ensure a long-term impact. We returned to Beirut three months later.
"It is critical to recognise that sport is a rare asset that can drastically change an individual's life, propelling the poorest child to the biggest stages due to their athletic prowess. Without such options, children will most certainly remain in their existing circumstances, with just a slim possibility of changing"
When we returned to Shatila, we were greeted by a community in mourning. A tragic disaster occurred when a boat carrying migrants capsized off the coast of Syria, killing at least 77 people, including occupants of the camp. It was the worst sinking to have occurred from a boat leaving Lebanon in recent years.
As Mohammed and I sat down with our friend Majdi, also known as Captain, he showed us all the projects he was running for the young children.
Together, we came up with a plan for the Jiu-Jitsu boot camp, which involved offering daily classes to several age groups. But first, we required high-quality Jiu-Jitsu mats. We had to travel to Jounieh, a place 20 kilometres north of Beirut, to obtain them. Our goal was to get mats that would stand the test of time.
The Jiu-Jitsu camp began on the second day, with Coach Mohammed and Coach Zaki giving three one-hour lessons per day for six days. "It was quite an experience teaching practical self-defence to children who speak a different language," Mohammed grinned. "But we built rapport, and they were able to pick up everything we taught them incredibly well."
Mohammed devised the curriculum, which included warm-up drills and exercises to improve reactions and coordination in self-defence, various Jiu-Jitsu techniques such as safe and effective falling and standing, defending oneself from an attacker standing over them, taking down others, and a variety of pinning and controlling strategies. "We ended each class with a fun exercise to cool down," he continued.
Later, as a guest coach, Ishtar Azzawi, a brown belt competitor for the Iraqi National team and multiple World, Euro, Asian, and Grand Slam champion, joined us in Shatila.
According to Ishtar, her time at the Shatila camp was unforgettable. She had anticipated meeting timid and introverted girls and hoped to increase their self-esteem. She was pleasantly surprised, however, to see that these girls were already full of confidence and ambition.
“They had big dreams and even bigger goals, which was truly inspiring.”
Ishtar was heartbroken to learn about some of the young girls' previous experiences with physical abuse, and she believes that programmes like this are critical for the protection and well-being of young women.
"I left this experience having learned a lot from these remarkable young women. Their tenacity and determination in the face of adversity were truly inspiring," she said.
The popularity of the boot camp meant that it had to continue, but due to the distribution of other aid, finding a full-time coach to take over was impossible. However, we were able to launch several big projects, including the purchase of 300 school bags, the establishment of a healthcare centre for the disabled and elderly, the inauguration of a women's Tatreez workshop, the distribution of football kits, and more.
"Our goal is to make these initiatives self-serving and self-sufficient, so we plan to go back to Shatila and reinvest in them," Mohammed explained.
He will once again direct the Jiu-Jitsu boot camp, this time with the assistance of Coach Abdul Fattah, a Jiu-Jitsu competitor and athlete who has previously generated funds for philanthropic projects in Uganda and Kenya.
"Only through consistency can they truly reap the full beneficial impact of training Jiu-Jitsu," Mohammed explains. "It is critical to recognise that sport is a rare asset that can drastically change an individual's life, propelling the poorest child to the biggest stages due to their athletic prowess. Without such options, children will most certainly remain in their existing circumstances, with just a slim possibility of changing. That has been the case for generations and may continue to be the case in the future."
Poverty, according to Mohammed, is not always a primary source of crime and violence. "Many people who live in poverty do not commit crimes," he said.
“The multifaceted and nuanced relationship between poverty and crime is influenced by a variety of factors, and eliminating poverty alone may not be sufficient to reduce crime and violence. It necessitates a comprehensive plan that addresses the institutional, social, economic, and psychological factors that fuel crime and violence in disadvantaged communities."
We invite everyone to contribute to our new fundraising in order to help these affected communities. With Ramadan having just ended, it is vital to remember that "the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said Sadaqah (charity) extinguishes sins like water extinguishes fire.'"
Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. His latest documentary premiered at the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week.
Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_