Refugee Children Find Place to Belong in Taekwondo

By Stephen Puddicombe, CBC News, 29 December 2016. 

Instructors at the Chimo Taekwondo club in Halifax say their young Syrian students are gaining more confidence with each class. (CBC)

Amer Turkmani beams as he watches his five children twist, punch and kick pads at Chimo Taekwondo in Halifax.

The children are just a few of the 60 or so young Syrian refugees who have signed up to study the Korean martial art since the summer and their instructors say taekwondo is changing their lives.

“When they first came in, they were all very timid. They were very unsure, not sure what to expect from the club, feeling like they were in a strange land,” said Doug Large, owner of Chimo Taewkwondo.

“Now they come in as if they have been here for years. They are happy … overall that sense of confidence and that sense of belonging some place has been a huge change.”

Classes 3 times a week

Turkmani, who taught taekwondo back in Syria, said the martial art is teaching his children discipline and courage.

Speaking in Arabic, Turkmani also said the young students enrolled in the class are learning to use taekwondo correctly and not out of anger.

Omar Mamoude, 15, is among the students who attend classes three times a week at the club.

“I like helping everybody,” said Mamoude. “If I see two fighting, or like three-on-one, I can help that guy.”

A place for children to go

The program was set up by the Chimo club and Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia.

“It’s an opportunity for us to reach out and give all those kids some place to be,” said Large.

“It gives them a sense of community, so a place to come work off some energy, a place to get some exercise.”

Hilary Thorne, a community connections co-ordinator with ISANS, said the beginner class is mostly made up of newcomer children.

“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “I just see kids having fun. I see kids who belong. Families who belong here and are just part of the family. And that’s just beautiful me to see that.”

About more than fighting

Large agrees, saying the classes are about more than fighting.

“It increases their mental focus, it gives them goals. We just promoted the first 12 or 14 of the kids to the next belt. They overcome challenges,” he said.

Katie Berakos, a 4th dan black belt, said she is impressed by all the children.

She said the girls have “a fierceness to them that is out of this world and it really shows when they are in the ring with their male counterpart.”

That’s resulted in more than a few victories against the boys.

“They love it,” said Berakos. “The boys, not so much. So it actually pushes the boys harder.

“It is absolutely amazing to see them flourish and their confidence has skyrocketed.”