International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Capoeira in the West Bank

His working handle is “Professor Arame,” which, after watching him for a few minutes, I wrongly assume comes from the Japanese seaweed of the same name. He’s a whip-thin 29-year-old who has an uncanny ability to assume the physical characteristics of any one of an ark full of animals. One minute he’s trumpeting like a bull elephant, his arms clasped together and dragging trunk like along the ground. The next? He’s bellowing, suggesting the king of the jungle is thriving in this Bedouin camp beside a highway in the West Bank.

Arame is surrounded by a circle of 12 young girls, whose eyes track his every move, and who squeal with delight as he transforms from elephant into lion.  They try to contain their laughter and overt curiosity, torn between the spectacle of the Professor’s menagerie and checking how their friends react. To say the Professor’s Arabic is limited is being polite, but there’s a translator on hand for those rare occasions when his images require verbal underpinning.

His given name is Daniel Vallejo Martinez, and he's spent most of his adult years travelling through a dozen countries teaching the game of capoeira. Working with these six to twelve year-olds from a hilltop Bedouin camp, he says he’s 99% spontaneity.  “I use the things that I like and that work, so I put those things in my training, and forget the serious part, and that’s how I catch the attention of the kids. As a result I win their respect.”

An hour later, I catch up with the Professor at his next class at an urban refugee camp in Ramallah, and his approach is more measured and mature. Here the class is older, with Palestinian boys and girls ranging into their early teens. They are more aware of what’s called the “Capoeira Road”. They know the instruments (the Brazilian bowed instrument, the berimbau is prominent), and how to play them. They also know the moves in this game that brings together fluid motion, and rhythmic music, and at the same time promotes self-awareness.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) started supporting capoeira training in the West Bank this summer, at a time when schools are out, and energetic kids have little to do. It’s the first time the IRC has funded an education-related program in the Palestinian Territories, and follows a recent IRC report highlighting the shortcomings of an educational system that used to be a model for the region. Some 100 Palestinian children are now learning the “Capoeira Way” through the IRC’s implementing partner, the London-based nonprofit-organization Bidna Capoeira.

Simon Burns is the outgoing Aussie coordinating the project for Bidna Capoeira. It “catches their imagination,” he says. “This is something where every kid can feel like they’re good—like they’re excelling at something. The boundaries and the discipline are giving them respect—and without violence, which is innovative.”

It’s also innovative in its structure. At the end of each class, the group sits for a wide-ranging conversation about and reflection on anything they wish. It starts with a review of the class, then can move on to touch on social issues, healthy eating, self-respect and respect for others.

The IRC’s country director for Jordan proposed funding the program. Maurizio Crivellaro notes that in a time of tight budgets, “believe me, it works. And at times I can be quite a skeptic!” While the IRC has funded the program through late October, its future in the West Bank is uncertain after that. 

Even if it only lasts for the summer, it appears certain there are already takeaways. A 12-year-old named Tamam offers a simple but profound compliment after her third class. “It’s fun. Arame comes and makes us happy, and I’ll be here every day.”

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