Syrian wrestling champ inspires young refugee's dreams
Young Mohammed was adrift after arriving at Za'atari camp, but an encounter with a Syrian wrestling champion gave him new hope.
Mohammad (standing), 14, trains with another young wrestler at Za'atari refugee camp.
© UNHCR/Annie Sakkab
For the first two years of the conflict in Syria, Mohammed carried on much as he had before. He went to school, played football with his brothers and cousins in the neighbourhood and went swimming on warm weekends in the lake near their village, Tal Shihab, close to the border with Jordan.
One night in February 2013, the bombs began to fall. Their house was destroyed around them while Mohammed and his family huddled in a corner for safety, fortunate to emerge unhurt from the wreckage in the morning.
“It was the worst night of our lives,” Mohammed said. Within days, he and his parents and three brothers arrived in Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan. Mohammed described the despair he felt as an 11-year-old forced to live in a tent, cut off from everything he once knew.
“I felt like there was nothing here for me,” he said. “At first there were no schools for children my age, so I spent the first six months just sitting in the tent and doing nothing. It was very dusty and we were always getting ill.”
Eventually, Mohammed was able to return to school and made new friends, but there was little to keep them occupied in the camp apart from disorganized games of soccer. With groups of bored teenage boys often hanging around, fights were not uncommon.
One person in the camp had a plan for how to channel this youthful aggression into something more positive. Mohammed Al-Akrad is a 34-year-old Syrian refugee from the southern city of Dara’a, and a former Syrian and Middle Eastern wrestling champion.
When UNICEF and Mercy Corps opened a fitness centre in the camp, he approached them and suggested organizing wrestling courses for boys. After they agreed, Mohammed approached his young namesake and urged him to join the class.
“I want to test myself against the best wrestlers, so that even if I lose I can learn from them.”
“I’d seen Mohammed fighting in the street a few times,” he said. “So one day I went over to him and told him to come to the wrestling course.”
The youngster knew nothing about wrestling, but after several of his friends joined up he decided to try it out.
Their new teacher taught them the rules of the sport as well its values: discipline, respect for your opponent and controlling your aggression. He would begin each session by encouraging the boys to open up and talk about what was on their minds – for example, the war in Syria or life in the camp.
Once they started wrestling for real, Mohammed fell in love with the sport and discovered that he had a natural talent for it. Of the four camp championships held so far, Mohammed has won every one in his weight class.
His success has fuelled his ambition, and now, at age 14, he dreams of travelling overseas to compete and become a regional champion like his mentor.
“I want to go abroad and find the ultimate bout,” he said. “I want to test myself against the best wrestlers, so that even if I lose I can learn from them,” he said.
“I want to test myself against the best wrestlers."
His trainer is convinced that his protégé has the ability and, more importantly, the dedication to emulate his own achievements. “He has the potential to compete nationally or even internationally, for sure, but if he only stays here in the camp there is a limit to how much he can improve. He needs to fight a higher level of opponent.”
For now, he says, it is enough that Mohammed has found a dream. “Wrestling has planted a seed of ambition in him. If you have a dream then you also have hope, and it’s given a sense of meaning to his life here in the camp. I hope one day I will see him competing on television, maybe even in the Olympics, and know that I played a small part in his success.”