The Refugee Karate Kid

The UN Refugee Agency has warned that the Burundi crisis could result in the third biggest refugee situation in Africa by the end of 2017.

In a refugee camp, it is an unusual sight: a motley crew of kids and young people take part in an outdoor karate class taught by a teacher donning a white bathrobe as a substitute for a real karate uniform. The poses are mimicked with earnest dedication by the pupils, with some struggling to get the right position.

Jean-Marie was 11 years old when he first started martial arts, he now teaches karate at a child-friendly space in Ndutu camp in Tanzania. He fled his home in Burundi when the situation became increasingly unstable. ©EU/EC/Anouk Delafortrie.

We are in Nduta camp in Tanzania, in one of the ‘child friendly spaces’ which is run by Plan International with EU humanitarian support. Children make up the majority of Burundian refugees and are extremely vulnerable. The EU is supporting child friendly spaces as a way of ensuring these children are safe and to prevent their chances in life from being shattered.

Jean-Marie*, the 26-year-old karate teacher, is himself a refugee, fleeing the spiralling violence of his home country, “I ran away when my master was attacked. A group wanted to force him to teach them fighting techniques. They were looking for both of us. But karate is about self-defense, not fighting.

Like 250 000 of his compatriots who have fled violence and food shortages since April 2015, Jean-Marie crossed into Tanzania. His mother went north to Rwanda. His father was killed years earlier during another violent episode in Burundi’s history. He sadly has no idea of his karate mentor’s whereabouts.

Jean-Marie was 11 years old when he started his training in Vovinam Viêt Võ Dao, a martial art similar to karate, 15 years later he is a black belt and had been teaching children back home. After a year in Tanzania, he applied for work at the child friendly space where he can once again introduce children to his art’s teachings.

The sport is good for building physical strength and for one’s health. It teaches young people confidence, respect and obedience. Karate has mentored me. Without it, I could have been just anyone, he says.

Jean-Marie’s classes have become very popular among students and parents alike to the point of having to refuse newcomers.

Jean-Marie (left) is himself a refugee. “People who train in karate behave with respect and are ambassadors of peace,” he says. ©EU/EC/Anouk Delafortrie.

In the future Jean-Marie hopes to leave the camp and teach karate abroad. He doesn’t want to return to Burundi, he describes the situation there as “hopeless”.

People who train in karate behave with respect and are ambassadors of peace,” says Jean-Marie.

One of Vovinam Viêt Võ Dao’s 10 principles is ‘to build up a spirit of steely determination and vigor, and overcome powers of violence.’

More than 400 000 Burundians have fled their country since the controversial presidential election in 2015. The majority of them sought refuge in neighbouring Tanzania where they are welcomed and hosted, but are not allowed to leave or work outside of the camps.

Children make up more than half of the world’s refugees. The EU is supporting child friendly spaces as a way of ensuring these children are safe and to prevent their chances in life from being shattered. ©EU/EC/Anouk Delafortrie.

According to Richard Sandison, Plan International’s emergency response manager, child friendly spaces are a priority in refugee settings where children are vulnerable, and classrooms and teachers are lacking.

We welcome children and provide them with basic literacy and numeracy skills and vocational training; we also carry out community based child protection and find foster families for unaccompanied minors,” he says. “Many foster families have signed up, not to get anything in return, but often to repay the support they themselves have received as children.

Roughly 25 metres from the karate class, children run buoyantly out into the playground as an informal learning session comes to an end. Some kids start throwing a ball while others set up the famous Burundian drums. Hypnotic drumming, dancing and singing ensue, emphasising what an uncomplicated and joyous space this is for children who have had their young lives disrupted by violence and hardship.

Jean-Marie wraps up his karate class. In spite of his white bathrobe covered in colourful cartoon prints and the elastic bands wrapped around his calves, he looks every part the karate teacher. It comes down to his posture and attitude, and his black belt of course. He may have arrived in Tanzania with hardly anything, but he still has karate and his principles.

*Not his real name

By Anouk Delafortrie, Regional Information Officer for EU Humanitarian Aid, the Great Lakes, East and Southern Africa