A dance of hope for child refugees in Middle East

A groundbreaking social project is using the art of capoeira to coax shell-shocked and vulnerable children out from behind their painful memories and towards empowerment and hope

For young people growing up in refugee camps in the midst of the civil war in Syria, the occupied Palestinian territories, or in post-war Iraq, life holds challenges that few of us can truly imagine.

The camps offer tragic examples of what the stresses of instability, isolation and an uncertain future can do to a community – particularly young people. Aggression, violence, hyperactivity, depression and bedwetting are among the psychosocial symptoms commonly reported in the communities where the charity Bidna Capoeira works.

“These desperately disadvantaged people can be hard to help,” executive director Ummul Choudhury tells Positive News. “Cultural sensitivities are high, unemployment is rife and poverty is normal. Young people with nothing to do, who feel unsafe, are vulnerable to drugs, crime and xenophobia. In such environments, interventions are difficult to sustain.”

Refugee camps are cramped, with families of ten or more living in just a few rooms. Getting work permits can be impossible and families come under unbelievable stress. Domestic violence is common, and violence between young people is widespread, with few neutral, youth-friendly spaces for them to come together or discuss their problems.

Bidna Capoeira realises it is these children who need the help most. The charity teaches capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian art form that combines dance, music, sport and play, to groups of children. It has no winner or loser and is thought to originate from African slaves who were put to work in Brazil in the sixteenth century by Portuguese colonists. They practiced their battle moves in preparation for an uprising against their oppressors, but whenever questioned, simply said they were dancing.

Children pair up for the sessions, which are taught in a social circle called a roda. To a backdrop of instruments and singing, they dance with each other, from simple steps to complex, fast-paced moves.

“It is impossible not to see the transformation of the young people involved”

As well as teaching children capoeria itself, the sessions offer a space for them to talk about issues they are dealing with – some ongoing, while others may arise there and then – ranging from gender awareness, to environmental issues or problems around discipline and anger. The instructors are trained to deal with such issues, and councillors are also brought in.

Now funded by a mixture of grants, donations, fundraising and corporate partnerships, Bidna Capoeira began with a project in Damascus in 2007. It has since run social capoeira programmes in safe houses, with refugees, in juvenile reformatory centres and with other marginalised children and young people, with partners including UNICEF, Red Crescent, Save the Children and the Brazilian embassy.

In the past six years, more than 7,000 children and young people have benefited from social capoeira in Syria alone as a result of the charity’s work.

Tarek Alsaleh, programme director and founder, explains: “Capoeira requires the participation of everyone, building a sense of community and of belonging. Our capoeira workshops teach not only physical movements but also the co-operative philosophy of capoeira, teaching life skills about communication, co-operation, anger management, responsibility and respect.”

The results have been staggering. According to Tarek, it is “impossible not to see” the transformation of the young people involved, in attitude, outlook and behaviour.

“These are children that arrive on the first day of class shy and hesitant to participate. After a few classes they are smiling, arriving early to classes, and participating with much more eagerness. Aggressive children who came into the class pushing and shoving and having a difficult time respecting the space of others, have learned to effectively channel their anger and learn to cope with the stresses of everyday life through capoeira.”

Some of the children have undergone particularly significant changes since becoming involved. Ummul tells the story of one child: “Ten-year-old Sara had severe behavioural problems, suffered from selective mutism and was extremely withdrawn. She used to sit and watch on the edges of the capoeira group. Our organiser said she had never participated in any activity before capoeira came to the camp. Suddenly, I saw her sitting next to the trainer, clapping and singing.

Salwa, a 12-year-old schoolgirl from Palestine describes how she “met new people and learned so many things from capoeira,” such as “how to love and respect each other.”

“Since capoeira came, life started to be beautiful,” adds Mariam, a nine-year-old from the Al Tanf Refugee Camp in Syria.

Tarek and Ummul’s vision is to create a social capoeira movement – they believe it has the potential to transform the lives of thousands more young people. Their central London office will support programmes in Palestine and Syria, as well as Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, and they also plan to expand their programmes in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as run a pilot programme in Kenya. At their office in Ramallah, Palestine, they are equipping local capoeira trainers with the skills they need to take the project forward themselves.

“Children and young people need to have safe places where they can play, express themselves, relieve their stress, and gain the tools they need,” says Tarek. “They need this not only to survive, but to thrive.”