What happened to the thousands of Syrian refugee children who were rescued off the Greek islands since 2015? Where are these children now? Are their parents still missing? These were the questions that struck me as I officiated at the recent European youth karate games on the beautiful Greek coastal town of Loutraki. Children from Belgium, Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy, Romania, Denmark and Greece all battling to win medals for their country and show off their precision techniques in a respectful and friendly spirit. It was Olympic combat sports and traditional martial arts at their best.
While the competition was exciting, I could not help but think of these refugee children who washed up on the shores just south of where I was staying. Where are they? Do they attend school? Do they play sports like other children? Are there any elite athletes among them? How much hope do they have in their lives?
In late 2017, a special Olympic Refugee fund was established to support refugee athletes to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games. But how many could qualify in Judo, Taekwondo or Karate? And who would coach these displaced children? And who would teach them the values of respect, discipline and excellence that are such an important component of martial arts code of ethics?
Later that evening I met with a German and Greek Olympic official to see if the International Olympic Committee would support a humanitarian sports initiative for refugee children. It was a bold idea — to have Israeli martial arts instructors train Greek coaches and Syrian refugee children in the values of tolerance, perseverance, and leadership through a special martial arts educational program. But it’s not entirely new: Since 2004 martial arts instructors from my Israel based NGO, Budo for Peace, have been promoting respect and coexistence in Israel with secular, ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arabs, Bedouins, Druze and other minority groups.
The German Olympic official I met was Professor Manfred Laemer, a pioneer in using sport to build trust between people. He initiated the first German-Israel sports exchange program after WW2 before there were diplomatic relations, so he knew too well how to achieve the insurmountable.
The Olympic officials did not reject my idea so I decided to fly to the island of Lesbos to see the refugee camps for myself and determine if my proposal was feasible. I had no idea what to expect nor did I believe that these children were ready to receive help from a country they had always considered “the enemy.” I was happily surprised to find many Israelis involved in helping the refugees.
Before my arrival, Yotum Polizer, the Co-CEO of IsraAID had contacted Yair Leibel the Israeli manager of the International Peace School. IsraAID is an Israeli humanitarian NGO that sends medical staff and Israeli volunteers to help countries in crisis. They have been rescuing Syrian refugees from the waters in Greece since 2015, giving them humanitarian aid and post-trauma therapy.
The International Peace School is a humanitarian project run by the Zionist Youth movement Hashomer Hatzair and “Angi” an Israeli Arab youth movement in partnership with IsraAID. The school provides classes in English, mathematics and language lessons in Arabic, Farsi, Congolese and Kurdish. Young Jewish and Arab Israeli volunteers help train refugee teachers so that the children have local role models that break the cycle of victimhood in their fragmented communities. The school wanted desperately to include an educational sports program.
The Peace School is an initiative similar to the one formed in 1999 in Kosovo when 800,000 people became refugees and returned home. At that time, the small Jewish community of 11 people had taken charge of the city’s 23 primary schools with the help of Israel and other Jewish Agencies. Every youth movement in Israel from the most secular to the most religious sent out teams of youth leaders for 2-week intervals. They worked with the Muslim Kosovo Albanian children, organizing summer camps, sports competitions, drama and music events, and whatever else they could think of to make their temporary exile less traumatic.
The initiative was so well received that the head of the NATO forces General Sir Michael Jackson personally thanked the Chief Rabbi of the UK Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for what “his people” had done. He said it was the most valuable contribution to the city’s welfare and that “we owe it to the Jewish people.”
Yair drove me directly to the Moria refugee camp – a former Greek army base that was refitted to house 1800 refugees but is now a sprawling mountain of tents with over 5500 refugees.
While The EU – Turkey agreement has slowed down the influx of refugees, it has not stopped them and approximately 300 refugees a week are still arriving across the Aegean Sea.
I boarded the bus packed with kids aged 5-17. We were joined by two other busloads of kids from the larger Kara Tepe refugee camp. The children are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Congo. There are Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and Kurds. Many of the kids have not been to school for four or five years, so the rickety classrooms packed with playmates and caring young adults is a real blessing for them.
I met a young Taekwondo instructor from Afghanistan named Dana. I introduced myself as the founder of Budo for Peace – the Israeli NGO that teaches children values such as respect and tolerance through Martial Arts training. There is such a plethora of evidence proving the benefit of educational martial arts programs that increase self-esteem and confidence in children that it was obvious that this is what these refugee children need. Dana was very excited to hear about what we do so I invited him to assist me in a lesson at the Peace School.
For the next 50 minutes, I taught a group of 25 Afghan, Iranian and Syrian refugee girls and boys. One 9-year-old girl named Fatima from Afghanistan had followed me everywhere. She said, “My dream is to be a Taekwondo teacher and compete for a country “. She did not know which country….
All the children felt empowered and so began the first Budo for Peace activity in Lesbos island. I thought to myself, who would have believed that an Australian who grew up in Jabotinsky’s Betar youth movement would be teaching karate and values to Afghan, Iranian and Syrian girls in a Hashomer Hatzair camp…in Greece?
The eight hours I spent in Lesbos had given me a great boost of hope and inspiration. I also realized that Budo for Peace’s educational program has the power to fight hatred and build good-will in future Arab generations.
By helping refugees’ children, we can give them a fighting chance at a better future and bring hope and light to a new Middle East order.