Taekwondo unlocks new world for Syrian sisters


In Jordan’s sprawling Azraq refugee camp, two little girls bike home, dressed in stark white martial art uniforms.

“I would like to be a world champion,” explains 12-year-old Rayan with a broad smile. “I want people to wonder how a little girl was able to discover taekwondo and defend herself.”

Rayan and her sister Zeinab, 10, are among dozens of Syrian children taking taekwondo classes as part of an initiative launched last year by UNHCR and the World Taekwondo Federation.

But not long ago, dreams of becoming a world champion or simply returning home safely was no guarantee for the sisters. In 2016, war and conflict tore the family’s neighborhood apart -- their house was destroyed. The girls, with their parents, fled Syria. 

“Our house was bombed three days before we fled Syria" the girl's mother, 39-year-old Badra, recalls. "When we first arrived [to Azraq], we started to cry. We were shocked. But the most positive thing is that my children are no longer scared. They are safe and they go to school too.”

Then Rayan and Zeinab discovered a sport that changed their life. 

“They were shy before,” says their mother. “But after they started this sport, they made many friends and their self-confidence improved.”

“For me, taekwondo is a sport that helps to learn and discover new things,” says Rayan. “It is not like football, football is just a game, it does not make you acquire skills that you can make use of. Taekwondo is much more interesting. It teaches you how to defend yourself.”

Attending the taekwondo academy has fueled Rayan’s ambitions. She dreams of competing in the Olympics, while her sister Zeinab wants to be a chef and a taekwondo coach. The sport has also expanded their horizons, through a South Korean coach who has been helping to train the girls.

“The coach showed us pictures of Korea,” Zeinab explains. “I fell in love with that view at first sight.” Her older sister Rayan is just as eager to travel: “I want to visit safe countries and explore cities. I want to see places with beautiful views like Syria, where there are green fields, flowers and mountains. I’d like to see it all.”

More to come . . . 

As Syria’s war reaches another grim milestone this month, marking seven years of conflict and seven years of refugees facing great hurdles to finding protection, shelter, services and hope for a future without violence. Throughout the month, USA for UNHCR will share stories of strength and resilience like Rayan and Zeinab's, as Syrian refugees continue to  rebuild their lives and work for a safer, more peaceful future.  


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