The Al-Tanf refugee camp, located outside Damascus, is often described as a “no man’s land.” Made up of small tent communities cramped between a major highway and a 20-foot concrete wall, it is a long way from the old plantations of tropical Brazil, where slaves combined martial arts, song, and dance to create capoeira as an expression of resistance. However, through the efforts of a non-profit group named CapoeirArab, the Al-Tanf refugee camp became the center of a budding capoeria culture in the Middle East. Through their community development work and social education, CapoeirArab embodies the active, creative, and cross-cultural engagement that is at the heart of Cultures of Resistance.
Capoeira teacher and entrepreneur Tarek Alsaleh founded CapoeirArab in 2007 as an independent capoeira training academy. Soon after its incorporation, the academy launched its “Free-4-Kids” program, which provides free training for children regardless of the financial backgrounds of their families. One year later, the organization began a 6-month program at the Khaled bin Al-Walid Youth Reformatory using capoeira training for 250 teenage participants. Following the success of the youth programs, CapoeirArab sought to unleash the potential of using capoeira as a tool to help individuals who have been displaced by violence. In 2009, the group started offering lessons at the Al-Tanf refugee camp. The program was an instant hit—so much so that soon after CapoeirArab’s first lessons, families began gathering to perform capoeria on their own, chanting “Bidna capoeira!,” Arabic for “We want capoeira.”
Camp residents’ overwhelming enthusiasm for the program inspired Alsaleh to found Bidna Capoeira, a long term initiative that uses sports, music, and art to encourage self-confidence and self-expression, develop greater respect for other cultures, and promote nonviolence and social inclusion. Participants have engaged in language instruction, music and dance lessons, and training in how to build the instruments that are used in capoeira and Brazilian music. As community members within the camp take an increasingly active role in designing and leading the capoeira programs, they are building a culture promoting tolerance, respect, and unity that looks like it will last far into the future.
Alsaleh says “[his] work with capoeira has just begun” and hopes to expand the organization’s reach. Recognizing the need for psychological support and a release vent for people all over the world, he and other organizers are set to launch capoeira groups in communities in other crisis areas of the world. As Alsaleh explains, “When I see all the kids and the refugees who are in need of some joy in their lives, it’s no longer a choice to help them; it’s an obligation.”
Click here to see our list of capoeira groups around the world that maintain the spirit of resistance.