Syrian wrestling champion brings hope to refugee youth

Jordan, Syria

July 29, 2014

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  • Former champion wrestler Mohammed Al Karad uses his coaching skills to help vulnerable youth at Zaatari camp in Jordan. Photos: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Mohammed Al Karad is a familiar face to many Syrians. The 32-year-old from Dara'a rose to notoriety during more than a decade as Syria’s national wrestling champion, and went on to coach the national team.

But despite his glorious past and titles, Mohammed is a refugee today — just like nearly three million of his fellow Syrians who have fled their country’s civil war.

At the gates of Zaatari

When Mohammed finally made the painful decision to escape in order to protect his family from the violence, he encountered the same uncertainty and chaos that every new arrival faces at Zaatari, the world’s second-largest refugee camp:

Families, exhausted after the grueling and dangerous journey across the border, huddle together waiting to be assigned a tent. Supply trucks roar along dusty roads. And dozens of boys and young men line the sides for the road with their wheelbarrows, waiting for work transporting the few belongings and tents new refugees have into the camp.

This is said to be one of the roughest parts of Zaatari camp, with gangs and troublemakers waiting to take advantage of new arrivals.

Amidst the mayhem sits Mercy Corps’ Shabab Littagheer (Youth Center), two giant white tents, several trailers and a large open yard where young refugees have access to a gym, martial arts, fine arts, computer classes and training in life skills like leadership and communication.

The location is strategic: Immediately outside is where most of the at-risk youth in the camp hang out — young people who are not attending school, are engaged in exploitive labor, or are lacking positive role models to deter them from disruptive behavior.

That is what Mohammed, as the Youth Center’s volunteer Head Coach, is hard at work trying to change.

“When I saw the center Mercy Corps was building in the camp, I knew I had to get involved,” said Mohammed. “I wanted to serve my community and help youths adjust to this very difficult life. I came as a refugee. I live in a tent. I know how hard it is.”

Helping vulnerable teens

Young people have it especially hard at Zaatari — in the process of fleeing Syria for Jordan, they have had to grow up overnight. In many cases their fathers have stayed behind in Syria to look after their homes and support the struggle for liberation. Boys in their teens have been thrust into the role of head-of-household and are responsible for their families in the camp.

Some youth have even been sent to the camp alone — told to escape Syria for safety or risk being recruited to fight in the ongoing civil war.

Hussein Issa Massalmeh, 19, came to Zaatari alone three months ago. “When I arrived I made some mistakes. Some other guys asked me to work with them, but then they stole everything from me and didn’t give me any money,” recalled Hussein. “After that I just stayed alone and couldn’t trust anyone.”

Like hundreds of other young men, Hussein spent his days near the gates of the camp waiting for any possible work. He spent the nights alone in his tent.

“In the beginning, I felt that life here was the same as death — like I wasn’t alive or dead, just nothing. I was destroyed, “ said Hussein. “I miss my father the most. Someone stole my phone s now I can’t even talk with him. He used to help me think through my problems, but now I have to figure everything out by myself.”

One day when Hussein was waiting for work near the front gates, he saw a man he recognized talking with the other youth loitering about. It was Mohammed Al Karad, the famous champion wrestler.

“I had seen the Youth Center in camp, but I never bothered going inside,” said Hussein. “But when I saw Al Karad was the coach, I thought I would try it. Now I come to the Center everyday. It is doesn’t feel like I am trapped anymore. I have even made some good friends, and Mohammed reminds me of my uncle — he is tough on me, but he also really cares. For the first time since I left Syria I don’t feel so alone.”

Mohammed’s celebrity status helps him encourage skeptical youth to try the Youth Center programs, and his commitment to helping them keeps teens like Hussein coming back.

Building a beacon of hope

Mohammed has used his coaching and youth development skills along with Mercy Corps training on child protection and social support to become a positive role model for youth at Zaatari.

The teen years are a fragile time of transition anywhere in the world, compounded by a deep longing for acceptance, respect and the pressure of preparing for the challenges of adulthood. Like their peers around the world, these Syrian adolescents are just now setting the course for their futures, but the isolation, instability, psychological stress and lack of education can be debilitating.

Mercy Corps is prioritizing programs that are designed to help this hard-to-reach and at-risk group. In Zaatari and in the urban communities in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq where more than 400,000 Syrian youth have taken refuge, our teams work to help this generation overcome isolation and hopelessness and develop confidence and life skills that will help them navigate the transition to adulthood.

Our Zaatari Youth Center program has already assisted more than 1,000 young men and women. For Hussein and his peers, the program has finally given them a small beacon of hope.

“Some nights I still cry in my tent, thinking my life is lost,” says Hussein, “but in the morning I go to the Center and I talk with the Coach and meet my friends and I know I can get through this. Now I am focused on planning for the future.”

How you can help

  • Your support is critical to ensuring this generation is not forgotten. A gift to our Syria Refugee Response helps more youth get the resources and protection they need to survive this crisis and have hope for the future. Donate today ▸
  • Learn more about how we're protecting Syria's children. Read their stories ▸