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Palestinian Children Learn the Brazilian Way

Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

OLD CITY, EAST JERUSALEM, Mar 20 2012 (IPS) - Standing under a canopy just inside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, a group of 20 Palestinian children are banging drums, clapping their hands and singing in Portuguese. This is capoeira, the traditional Afro-Brazilian sport that mixes dance, music and martial arts, and it is sweeping through the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Children at a capoeira class in East Jerusalem. Credit: Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/IPS.

Children at a capoeira class in East Jerusalem. Credit: Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/IPS.

“In capoeira, they can find a safe space where they can resolve their aggression and energy. There is a lot of (learning about) how to be in control of your movements and controlling yourself, expressing yourself and also taking care of the other ones around you,” explained Jorge Goia, a Brazilian capoeira trainer who led the class in Jerusalem.

“Because capoeira is a kind of martial art, there is also a big sense of discipline in terms of being part of a group where you have to do things together. I think this, among the boys, has a very strong impact on them,” Goia told IPS.

Non-profit organisation Bidna Capoeira (‘We want capoeira’) began offering capoeira classes in March 2011 to children and youth in Palestinian refugee camps throughout the West Bank. Since that time, it is estimated that 800 Palestinian children have taken part in the capoeira programme.

Today, courses take place in the Shuafat and Jalazone refugee camps, in Hebron and Ramallah, and in Jerusalem’s Old City, and the programme continues to promote its goal of empowering Palestinian youth and giving them a healthy, positive outlet for their frustrations.

“Capoeira can be a very powerful tool for children in terms of increasing self-confidence, (and) increasing the sense of belonging to something. Capoeira is played in a group; you need people singing and playing the instruments, so you create this idea that you are part of something and that everybody there is helping each other to develop and learn,” Goia said.

Sahar Qawasmeh’s six-year-old son, Ahmad, began capoeira classes in Jerusalem’s Old City in February. “It’s new. He did before lessons in karate and swimming, but for a change, capoeira is nice,” Qawasmeh, a resident of Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem, told IPS. “I’ve seen capoeira in some festivals. (Ahmad) gets to use his strength and he likes it.”

According to Ilona Kassissieh, Public Information Officer at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides support to Palestinian refugees and partnered with Bidna Capoeira to organise capoeira classes in the West Bank refugee camps, the impact has been clear.

“(The children) have learnt a lot and they have proven that they are very eager and can learn very fast,” Kassissieh told IPS. She explained that providing extra-curricular activities to Palestinian children in refugee camps is important since it gives them an opportunity to escape their difficult daily circumstances.

“Refugees in general, and children in particular, are the vulnerable group because they live in very difficult circumstances. The infrastructure does not help children receive the required aspects for a normal standard of living. These kind of extra-curricular activities are always beneficial on a child and leave a positive impact. It creates a certain coping mechanism where children can think outside the box and can put their energies into something they like and would like to learn further,” she said.

For Jorge Goia, the history of capoeira as a grassroots movement used by oppressed communities in Brazil offers a direct connection to Palestinians who today are living under Israeli occupation and control.

“Capoeira was developed by slaves in Brazil, so it was created by people who were under oppression and they used capoeira as a way to empower themselves and get self-confidence and cope with all the demands when you are living under oppression,” Goia explained.

“The focus is more into escaping, into learning how to face a situation where you are the weak one. You are the one who doesn’t have any kind of gun or weapon, you just have your body, so how can you survive? How can you escape from being oppressed?”

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