Syrian wrestling champion brings love of sport from refugee camp to Canada
Mohammed Alkarad, the 12-time Syrian national champion wrestler, was coaching the national team when he was approached by the Syrian government.
With protests around the country, they wanted him to become an informant and keep an eye on the people he was coaching on behalf of the government, and use his celebrity to do it.
“That made my life dangerous in Syria,” he said.
“I took the decision to leave Syria to Jordan.”
When he arrived at Zaatari Camp in Jordan in 2012, “I think I lived three days in a coma.” He only felt relief that he was safe, he said.
But after three days, he started to notice the people around him. “I was seeking for something to help the people because all the people were very sad and the children have stress. I see everyday problems between the people and that made me sad.”
WATCH: Former Syrian champion wrestler Mohammed Alkarad on wrestling for refugees
The camp is now Jordan’s fourth-largest city, with a population of about 78,000 people – most of them Syrian refugees. In 2013, it reached a peak population of just over 200,000.
Alkarad wanted to help the kids, he said, and his experience as a wrestling coach made it an obvious decision: start a wrestling program.
“Already the child has energy. You need to spend that energy. I think the wrestling was the better thing to spend their energy and absorb the violence of the children.”
It started with a small group to just encourage kids to play, he said. But as NGOs like Mercy Corps got involved, the program soon grew to include hundreds of kids. Alkarad estimates that about 1,700 children and youth participated at one point or another.
Wrestling at the camp
One of those kids was Mohammed Nakash, who Alkarad affectionately calls “Hamada.”
Nakash, 16, still lives at Zaatari camp, and his family’s shelter is decorated with dozens of medals and trophies he won in camp wrestling tournaments.
“When I first started, Mohammed was the manager of the gym and the wrestling program. He wanted to get more people to enrol, so he told me, ‘Come and try.’”
After attending for a few weeks, he dropped out. And Alkarad soon searched him out – something he did with many of his truant students.
“I told him I did not like it. He told me, ‘No, you will come back and I will train you.’”
After a few months of Alkarad pushing him, Nakash came to love the sport. “It gave me self-confidence,” he said.
“I did not have self-confidence before wrestling to speak in front of people, to go and do interviews. This sport gave me this self-confidence.”
His wrestling career was cut short though when Alkarad left Zaatari Camp to move to Ottawa, after being privately sponsored as a refugee. “We said, ‘Our future went. There is no one to train us anymore.’”
Although he has nothing but well-wishes for Alkarad, since he left, the wrestling program doesn’t exist in the same way. So, he practices gymnastics instead but misses wrestling.
“For it to be part of my future in this camp, it’s really hard. There is no future for wrestling in a refugee camp.”
Alkarad believes that Nakash has the makings of a champion though.
“If someone gives him the chance to get out of the camp, if someone supports his training, I guarantee he will be a champion.”
“I can see it in his eyes,” he said. Nakash has passion for the sport and the discipline to keep up with his training. “He has some sadness in his eyes, but he has hope. I’m sure he will be a champion one day.”
Life in Ottawa
After arriving with his family in Ottawa, Alkarad began training local wrestlers at a nearby high school. He soon had to step back from that though to take care of his young son, who has kidney problems and requires a lot of medical care, and his elderly parents.
He’s hoping to get back into the ring soon. “In October, we will start a new program for newcomers,” he said. In partnership with local organizations, he will offer new arrivals to Canada the chance to be coached by a champion.
He’s excited to start. “It will complete my project” of helping children find social support through wrestling, he said.
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