A refugee athlete gains confidence in his life through taekwondo
In his recent visit to South Korea, 19-year-old Syrian refugee athlete and Olympic Team hopeful Wael Al-Farraj shares his story of how taekwondo changed his life.
Seventeen-year-old Syrian, Wael Al Farraj, from Homs, at the Azraq Taekwondo Academy in Jordan.
© Diego Ibarra Sánchez
“I was 14 years old when I got a black belt. It took me one year for me to become a black belt holder after my first taekwondo lesson,” says Wael Al-Farraj. “This achievement gave me confidence in my life.”
Though humble about his accomplishments, Wael, was the first ever black belt athlete from the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation’s Azraq Academy – a taekwondo academy based in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp. He is also an International Olympic Committee Refugee Athlete Scholarship holder. Now, he trains with the Jordanian National Taekwondo Team six days a week, practising with the top athletes in his host country.
In June, Wael was in South Korea – the birthplace of taekwondo – to compete in the 25th Asian Taekwondo Championships and the 2022 Chuncheon Korea Open.
In Jordan, Wael lives in the Azraq refugee camp with his parents and seven siblings, all of whom fled Syria in August 2014. The camp, which was opened in the year they fled, is now home to more than 38,000 Syrian refugees. Today, with the conflict still ongoing, 6.8 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes.
Before learning taekwondo, Wael was not able to see the world outside a small caravan where he resides with three others. Now, as a professional athlete aiming to compete in the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, he’s building his experience in international competitions and exploring the world.
"I met many people from different countries thanks to taekwondo"
Wael never planned on being a taekwondo athlete. Instead, it was his enthusiasm for sports which connected him to taekwondo. In 2016, Asif Sabah, Wael’s current taekwondo coach, trucked in martial arts mats into the Azraq camp.
“We had to unload the mats from the truck and Wael volunteered to help me”, Asif says, recalling their first encounter. Wael, on that day, was wearing a number 7 FC Barcelona t-shirt.
“Wael told me he loves FC Barcelona and martial arts,” explains Asif. Seeing his enthusiasm for the sport, Asif encouraged Wael to join a class. “During training, I saw his potential as he followed my instructions and was very well disciplined.” From there, Wael started formal training, and ever since, the relationship between Asif and Wael evolved into what they describe as a “father-and-son” bond.
Established in 2016, the Azraq Academy became a shelter for around 100 refugee children, including 28 black belt holders.
“The youngest black belt holder is a 6-year-old girl,” Asif explains. “And there is one family that has four black belt holders – the father, two boys and one girl.”
South Korea is the second country where Wael competed abroad. His first was in the United Arab Emirates, where he competed in the Arab Cup this past February.
“I can leave the camp because there is a reason. I met many people from different countries thanks to taekwondo,” he says smiling.
Crossing borders is not and has never been easy for refugees – including Wael – who said it has been difficult for him to get permission to travel abroad for competitions. Fortunately, his visit to South Korea went smoothly due to support from the Korean Embassy, the Jordanian government, World Taekwondo and UNHCR.
Wael’s favourite player is South Korean taekwondo athlete, Lee Dae-Hoon, who won silver and bronze in the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics respectively. He admires Lee Dae-Hoon’s humble attitude, which Wael himself follows.
“I like watching his games on the internet, but sometimes it’s hard because there’s not enough power to charge my phone [in the camp],” he says.
Despite being defeated in the first qualifying round against a Japanese athlete in the Asian Taekwondo Championships, Wael remained determined to do his best. His perseverance led him to become the recipient of the “Good Fighting Spirit Award” – a prize presented to the athlete who demonstrated positivity and resilience during the competition.
Wael still strives to achieve his dream to participate in the upcoming Summer Olympics to represent refugees, and he believes that taekwondo came into his life to give him strength and confidence.
“I don’t know what would have happened to me if I didn’t learn taekwondo,” he says. “In the past, I was just sitting in the camp. But now there is a goal to achieve, and I want to be a good example to other refugee kids.”