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“We had to do something” – Taekwondo’s mission of hope in Jordan’s desert

By Dan Palmer

In 2015, World Taekwondo President Chungwon Choue was travelling to London with a plan forming in his head.

His sport had just witnessed a very successful World Championships in Russian city Chelyabinsk, and was looking forward to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, but the Korean’s mind was elsewhere.

At around the same time, the world was watching on in increased horror as thousands upon thousands of people from the Middle East and Africa fled war, drought and poverty in search of a better life in Europe.

Men, women and children embarked on perilous journeys from their homelands, risking their lives in search of something better.

The sight of dangerously unsafe boats, packed full of desperate people who barely had room to move, became a heartbreakingly regular fixture in the morning newspapers.

In September 2015, even the most stone-hearted among us were left aghast when a photograph emerged of three-year-old Aylan Shenu, lying dead on a beach in Turkey.

The young Syrian had tragically drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as his family tried to escape the clutches of ISIS.

His life had been snuffed out before it even had the chance to begin and things such as taekwondo, and all sport for that matter, no longer seemed to have any importance.

“I thought that sport had to do something,” said Choue.

The 71-year-old and his sport did do something. They launched the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation (THF) and in four years the initiative has worked wonders to bring some joy back into the life of children impacted by an appalling situation.

It began life with a simple goal – to teach taekwondo to displaced people around the world and to bring the benefits of fitness, sport, self-defence, self-belief and self-esteem to those who need it most. 

What has emerged since could be regarded as a blueprint for other sports to follow.

The flagship academy at Jordan’s Azraq Refugee Camp has produced no fewer than eight black belts and projects have also run in countries including Turkey, Rwanda, Djibouti, Burundi and Nepal.

Chungwon Choue at the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation Academy at Azraq ©THF

Hundreds of children have been reached and the THF even came to the attention of Pope Francis in the Vatican.

Now, there are dreams of producing a Tokyo 2020 Olympian.

Choue travelled to the United Nations in New York City on September 21, 2015, the International Day of Peace, to outline his vision.

“I was thinking, as an Olympic sport, we should have some contribution to human society,” Choue said.

“At the time the refugee issue was very serious indeed.

“So, I decided, why not build the Taekwondo Humanitarian Centre?

“I was invited to the United Nations to celebrate the International Day of Peace and I declared World Taekwondo would build the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation to help the refugee children.”

Just over four years on from the New York announcement, I found myself alongside Farah Al Asaad, the THF’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator, snaking our way through the typically heavy traffic of Jordanian capital Amman and en-route to Azraq.

I was excited to see the Academy for myself, but also felt some trepidation at how I would be received.

Some of these children have lost both of their parents to war. Would they really want, or need, a person who cannot even imagine what they have been through turning up to ogle a training session?

Al Asaad is a former member of the Jordanian national taekwondo team and competed to an exceptionally high standard. She boasts a black belt with five dans.  

As well as her work with the THF, she now coaches youngsters in Amman and quite simply lives and breathes the sport.

“When I see them they make me feel very happy,” she tells me.

“I feel that they bring me back to taekwondo.”

It is about a 90-minute drive from Amman to Azraq. Once the hustle-and-bustle of the city is behind you, the terrain abruptly changes to a vast stony desert with little in the way of infrastructure.

A freshly-paved road arrows off into the distance in an almost straight line, and the huge number of cars from the streets of Amman simply disappear. To say that this is the middle of nowhere would be an understatement.

We eventually pull up at the gate of the camp. Gaining access to Azraq is, understandably, not the easiest thing in the world. But, with a quick check of my passport and a phone call, the guard ushers us through.

Azraq Refugee Camp is vast and there is still around 15 minutes of driving before we reach the Academy. Around 35,000 Syrian refugees live there and 22 per cent of those are under five-years-old.

The Academy at Azraq Refugee Camp in the early days ©THF
The Academy at Azraq Refugee Camp in the early days ©THF

It lies just 90 kilometres away from Syria and you could drive to the nearest border crossing in just over an hour. For those living in Azraq their past lives must seem like a stone’s throw away, while at the same time impossibly out of reach.

The camp opened in April 2014 and is now run by the Syrian Refugees Affairs Directorate and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It has been divided into several “villages” in a bid to generate a greater community spirit among the residents. Should there ever be the need, the camp could one day expand to hold up to 130,000 people.

We keep on driving and eventually a large number of shelters loom into view. There are nearly 9,000 of them in the camp, all lined-up in rows. For the 35,000, these small steel boxes are home and it is a humbling site to witness.

Our arrival coincides with the end of the morning’s school session and suddenly dozens of children are milling around the narrow streets. A few knock on the window of the car and there are plenty of smiles. We wave back to a small group and continue on our way.

It is clear that the camp is essentially a large town and Farah stops and asks for directions.

“This is the first time I have driven here myself,” she explains.

Lots of people are getting around by bike and Jordan’s common speed bumps – a bugbear of the country’s motorists – are here in abundance. 

After some more twists and turns we pull in at the Academy, a modern-looking building which features new artificial turf at the front.

The first thing I immediately notice is the heat. Jordan is hot at the best of times but out in the desert the thermometer goes up a notch. It is late September and the mercury is someway north of 30 degrees.

“It is hot, right?” says Farah. Sports headlines these days often feature athletes concerned about hot weather, with the World Athletics Championships in Qatar this year and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo two such examples.

Their worries are often wholly justified, so it is hard not to admire the efforts of young refugees, learning a new sport in what can only be described as serious heat. There is no air conditioning at the Academy and in the hotter summer months the climate is even more challenging.

The Academy building features one main room which is covered in taekwondo mats. High quality equipment is kept around the edges.

A smaller area to the side contains an office, toilets and a room which can be used for storage and study. The youngsters are already starting to warm-up and the distinctive thudding noise of kicks on pads begins to echo around the room. In a place so remote, so desolate, it is undoubtedly an impressive set-up.

Young Syrian refugees find a place of happiness at the Academy ©THF
Young Syrian refugees find a place of happiness at the Academy ©THF

It was not always this way. In the early days, training took place in United Nations buildings before the Academy was ready.

Work on the permanent building began in December 2017 and was completed by the following March. The THF is funded by World Taekwondo, member countries from around the world, private sponsors, Governments and donors, and put the money in themselves. Almost overnight, more students were able to take up taekwondo and a safe, sports-dedicated facility was born.

Taekwondo people know all about effective leg-work and an army of volunteers helped make the Academy happen.

“When we had the Opening Ceremony we all went there and cleaned the building and set-up everything and did it by ourselves,” said Al Asaad.

“People came from the THF office in Switzerland and the children, by the way, helped us.

“Usually, from time to time, they clean the Academy.”

Choue inaugurated the building on April 1, just under two years after the THF had put their boots on the ground at Azraq with the first pilot project.

His Royal Highness Prince Rashid Bin El Hassan, the President of the Jordan Taekwondo Federation, was among the guests and Choue spoke of his “pride and humility”.

Since then, that thudding sound has been heard almost constantly within the Academy’s walls. As has the laughter and roars from those pummeling the pads.

How then, would Choue assess the work that has been done so far?

“We still have work to do,” he tells me.

“Not just the THF, but all sports organisations.

“But in terms of establishing a flagship project in Azraq, I would say we have been successful.

“We now have a template we can build-on for future projects.

“There has been a few milestones that we have been very proud of.

“We have produced eight black belt holders in Azraq.

“Among the black belt holders, we have two girls. We want to promote gender equality, especially in the Middle East region.

“This is a great achievement and can serve as a role model for future generations.

“Taekwondo is a really disciplined sport.

Youngsters are put through their paces inside the Academy ©THF
Youngsters are put through their paces inside the Academy ©THF

“The parents at Azraq, after their children learn taekwondo, most of them are really pleased.

“They say ‘their behavior has changed!’

“In Azraq there are sisters and a brother from the same family who have all earned black belts.

“They come from a family of 11 siblings, so we might expect the younger ones to follow their footsteps.”

It was time to meet some of the children. More and more kept leaping through the doors, dressed in taekwondo whites with belts proudly around the waist.

The mats were a hive of activity and were under the watchful eye of the THF’s highly-regarded coach, Asif Sabah.

Everyone suddenly gathered around to meet the stranger within the midst. After attempting a short speech in Arabic, I handed over to Farah’s translation skills and powerful stories on the impact of the Academy came flooding in.

There is black belt holder Oqla, who started taekwondo 17 months ago and spoke of the benefits of self defence, and his aim to become a coach.

Ali wants to become a famous player and currently holds a red belt. In time, that could soon be black. Suilman Ahmed says that taekwondo has turned his life around as he had “lost his way”.

Eleven-year-old Rahma wanted to become a lawyer but her goal now is a taekwondo player. Nagham, who is 12, had just come from school but found it difficult to concentrate while thinking of her upcoming training.

There are countless stories along the same theme. One boy, when asked for his name, replies simply with “Abughaush”.

This is in reference to Jordan’s Olympic taekwondo champion Ahmad Abughaush and the young lad refused to go by anything else.

Ahmad is a legend in Jordan after winning the country’s first Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016.  

When he beat Russia’s Aleksey Denisenko in the final of the men’s 68 kilograms featherweight division, the whole country was probably glued to a television set.

His success was not just the first Olympic gold for the Kingdom, but the first Olympic medal of any colour. The King offered his personal congratulations and in the blink of an eye Jordanians had a new favourite sport.

In the three months after the famous victory, 50,000 taekwondo robes are said to have been sold in Jordan and it is not uncommon to see signs for classes and gyms.

All of Al Asaad’s students took up the sport following that glorious day in Brazil, and the man himself has visited Azraq to lend his support.

It was there that he inspired his younger namesake, who now treasures a photograph of himself alongside the Olympic champion.

In short, this is a taekwondo-mad nation and it is perhaps the ideal location for the THF to thrive.

Jordan's Olympic gold medallist Ahmad Abughaush, centre, has backed the Azraq project ©THF
Jordan’s Olympic gold medallist Ahmad Abughaush, centre, has backed the Azraq project ©THF

The younger Abughaush stands up and performs an acrobatic gymnastics routine that Simone Biles would have been proud of.

He receives a generous round of applause from the rest of the group and it is clear that respect, politeness and manners are drilled into the youngsters as much as the taekwondo.

One of the Academy’s female success stories is 15-year-old Rayan Al Sulayman whose family made a distressing trip over the border from Deir ez-Zor in Syria.

She is already a black belt and in July 2018 was part of a nine-strong THF team which travelled to Amman to take part in the El Hassan Cup International Open tournament.

Rayan lost her match but it is clear being part of the squad, which took part in the capital under the tutelage of Al Assad and Sabah, was an unforgettable experience.

“I lost in Amman but I was not sad,” she said.

“I watched a lot of players and could learn from them.

“Being at the THF makes me extremely happy.”

Taekwondo is a family affair for Rayan who speaks about wanting to become world champion.

Her younger sister Zeinab is another ferocious competitor. An older sibling also earned her black belt but is now back in Syria having got married.

Rayan has spoken of wanting people to discover “how a little girl was able to discover taekwondo and defend herself”. With a black belt around her waist, and watching her confidently spar with the boys, I think it is fair to say this mission has been accomplished.

Sabah coaches at the Academy four times a week and is hero-worshipped by his students, who have given him a “1000 out of 1000” rating.

Born in 1969, he took up taekwondo aged 19 and became a coach in 2002. Before starting with the THF in April 2016, he ran his own training centre in the nearby town of Azraq. A trained referee who has officiated at several major competitions, this is a man who has taekwondo in his blood. Anything he doesn’t know about the rules of the sport is probably not worth knowing.

He is the only coach on the THF’s books and he finds instructing the refugees highly-rewarding.

When running his own centre, a pair of Syrians asked to take part and the effect they left on him was long-lasting.

“Working in the camp you feel good because you make the children feel good,” he said.

“You have the feeling of ‘I’ve helped them’.

“They come from Syria, from terrible things, and we do taekwondo here to help them to forget, to look to the future.

Asif Sabah is the Academy's much-respected coach ©THF
Asif Sabah is the Academy’s much-respected coach ©THF

“You give someone a green belt, a yellow belt, they are happy!

“All of the students are like my children, my friends.”

At Rio 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) launched its Refugee Olympic Team for the first time, with 10 athletes competing across the sports of athletics, judo and swimming.

The dream for the THF is that a graduate could one day grace the grandest stage of all, with Tokyo next year not an impossible target.

In December 2017, Wael Fawaz Al-Farraj became the Academy’s first black belt and has continued to improve.

He counts martial arts icon Bruce Lee among his heroes and his obvious talent soon attracted the attention of the Jordan Olympic Committee (JOC).

The JOC applied on his behalf for an Olympic Solidarity scholarship and, on World Refugees Day in June, the IOC confirmed he had been successful.

Al-Farraj is now part of a group of 37 hopefuls who are working towards the goal of competing for the Refugee Olympic Team in Japan.

Should the 17-year-old be successful it would represent a phenomenal achievement for the Academy, less than five years after Choue first announced his plan in New York.

Six other taekwondo fighters are among the group, from Iran and Afghanistan. All are receiving training grants to help their Olympic dreams come to fruition.

“Besides improving the health, the THF is about looking forward to a big dream in their lives,” said Choue.

“One of our IOC scholarships is from the Azraq Camp.

“I sincerely hope they all qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

“But, as you know, that is not easy.”

Back on the mats, a student is demonstrating an extremely technical poomsae taekwondo routine. A few children then start to don helmets to take part in bouts. 

These are high-intensity affairs with kicks flying in and flesh meeting flesh. Some of the youngsters are wearing t-shirts with the message “peace is more precious than triumph” but it certainly seems like they are trying to, well, triumph.

Afterwards, however, it is all smiles. I struggle to remember the last time I saw so many grins and, for a brief moment, I forget where I actually am.

Outside of the main building a man of older years named Khaled Rashdeh is perched on a chair. A resident of Azraq for four years, he has taken on the role of Academy guard.

He shows me the trees that have been planted by various taekwondo dignitaries who have visited the project, a rare example of greenery in the desert.

Rashdeh has taken pride in the space and even received permission to plant some trees of his own. This is to make “a nice space, like home”.

His chosen trees are olives trees, “because they live longer and we can use the oil”. You cannot fault this logic but such forward-planning in a refugee camp does make you pause for thought.

Wael Fawaz Al-Farraj has dreams of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ©THF
Wael Fawaz Al-Farraj has dreams of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ©THF

The artificial turf at the front of the building was installed last year and can be used for a huge number of sports.

Nobody would have blamed the THF if they simply kept the facility for taekwondo and retained the benefits and good-news stories within their own sport. But, to their enormous credit, the doors have been flung open and deals signed with world governing bodies including wrestling, badminton, table tennis and sambo.

In July, a joint-event was held at Azraq alongside United World Wrestling (UWW) called “Aspire 2gether for Peace”, which saw demonstrations and training sessions provided by athletes from both sports.

Choue was joined by JOC President and IOC member Prince Faisal bin Hussein and a high-level UWW delegation, with all parties pledging that the event would not be a one-off.

Instead, it was the start of a long-term commitment.

“We have Olympic and non-Olympic sports that have signed up with THF,” said Choue. “We will do a lot more.

“The more we pull our resources together, the brighter the future of these young refugees.

“I was very happy to have organised a joint project with United World Wrestling at Azraq. It was really, really touching for me.

“We expect more sports to sign-up with us in the near future, not only from Olympic and non-Olympic sports but also from the International Paralympic Committee.”

At the end of the session, I am hugely touched to be presented with two t-shirts. I am thanked for visiting the camp and people start to gather around for photos.

“When I start working with them, I feel another side of sport,” says Al Asaad.

“These kids, they don’t need food, or clothes, they need sport to give them inside a feeling that they are living like us.

“When I see their smiles, they touch my heart.

“I want to do more and more. Every time, if I face any challenge, I do it for them. They give me the power to give all I have.

“We should inspire them, but they ended up inspiring us to do more and more for them.

“They have a small world with a big heart.”

After exiting through the camp’s huge barb-wired fences and getting back out onto the desert roads, I cannot help but feel a sense of guilt. I was returning to a comfortable life in Amman, in a nice flat in a city which has an abundance of shops, restaurants and bars. Syria would have been like that once, and one day could be again. For now, though, that seems a distant dream and the kids are unable to leave the camp grounds once training is over for the day.

I don’t know what it is like for them once they leave the Academy and head back to school or their metal-box accommodation. But I do know that once they step onto the taekwondo mats, whatever has come before, can, for a short while at least, be pushed to one side. It is a place of positivity where before there was none.

So, what plans for the future?

There is no electricity and water in the Academy building but installation is not a simple process. Rashdeh regularly walks back and forth from the camp’s communal taps, carrying large bottles. The addition of both would make things much easier.

A second coach to assist Sabah is also high on the wish-list. Two-hundred children come through the doors every week but he cannot keep up with demand, and there is a waiting list of eager youngsters who want to get involved.

Choue has big goals of expanding internationally, meaning more Academies based on the Azraq model could soon be popping up in camps around the globe.

A joint event was held with wrestling as the THF's doors were flung open to other sports ©THF
A joint event was held with wrestling as the THF’s doors were flung open to other sports ©THF

In May 2017 in St Peter’s Square in Vatican City, Pope Francis told the Korean how impressed he was with THF initiatives.

“We are already making plans to establish a Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation centre at the Markazi Camp in Djibouti,” Choue, who was appointed as one of the founding members of the Olympic Refuge Foundation, said.

“We have already contacted the relevant authorities there and I will be visiting the site later this year.

“After that, I will look into expanding into Rwanda and other countries.”

Of course, one would hope that refugee projects such as this will one day no longer be necessary.

We are all aware that people are suffering in the world but for me, at least, it really hit home after seeing the real-life faces of human children affected by the horrors. 

“They have suffered hardship and some children were even born inside the refugee camp,” said Choue.

“So for them to know there is the THF, and that there are people who genuinely care for them, that is something I believe is the biggest benefit.

“These are youngsters without any dream when they first came to the camp.

“Through our taekwondo programmes, they now have a dream.”

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