x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Jordan's karate kids hit back at disabilities

An award-winning coach helps special-needs children to gain confidence through martial arts.

Hosam Ayyad, head of the Japan Karate Association in Jordan, trains children suffering from physical and mental illness.
Hosam Ayyad, head of the Japan Karate Association in Jordan, trains children suffering from physical and mental illness.

AMMAN // Ahmad Shamrrmokh, 16, has spastic cerebral palsy, but his karate coach, does not let that hold him back during their martial arts classes. At first, the coach trains him while seated on a chair at a club in the outskirts of Amman. Later, the coach makes a side kick near Ahmad's face, and the boy shields himself with his arm.

Next he feigns going to beat the teenager with a black rod. Ahmad rolls on the floor to avoid the blow, then rises to his feet to continue the training, the smile never leaving his face. When he can, the coach, Hosam Ayyad, brings Ahmad to the club in a taxi. If not, the boy walks, often falling and injuring himself repeatedly on the way. But he is eager not to miss the lessons he has been taking for the past five years.

While people with disabilties in Jordan are often marginanlised and fall victim to social stigma, Mr Ayyad has dedicated 18 years of his working life to teaching children karate, particularly those suffering physical and mental disabilities. He has taught over 1,000 physically and mentally challenged children, many of whom come from underprivileged families. In 1999, he created the first karate team for disabled children.

In recognition of his efforts, the coach was one of 10 winners honoured by Queen Rania last year in the Ahel Himeh initiative, which the queen launched to reward those who serve their community. The coach, who is also head of the referee committee for the Japan Karate Association in Jordan, teaches the children they can be just like others their age. Inside the club, three boys with Down's syndrome practise their Karate moves. Each one holds a brown belt.

Coach Ayyad has been providing them with training for over a decade and is adamant they will get their black belts in the next few months. "People consider children with Down's syndrome incapable of doing anything, or even crazy," Mr Ayyad said. "They fail to understand them or treat them right. "But through sport, we can help these children to become distinguished and capable citizens in society.

"Through sport, we can achieve that. In this way we can change society's outlook." Ahmed Boni, 17, who has Down's syndrome, chimes in his approval, saying: "I want to take a black belt." But it is not the physical training that does most to change the lives of many children. "It is all about respect, love and friendship," Mr Ayyad said. "That's what makes the difference." Mr Ayyad showers his charges with words of encouragement, high fives and embraces. "I love you so much, you are doing great," he tells them.

The coach then stretches the legs of the children with spastic limbs, to ease their stiffness after training. Fatmeh Ayyash, whose eight-year-old son Mohammad was born with spastic limbs, takes two buses to bring her child to karate lessons three times a week. She lives in an impoverished Palestinian refugee camp in Jerash, a city some 50km north of Amman. "The children make fun of me," Mohammad said.

He has been practising for the past two weeks. "I want him to become better and be like other children and to learn how to protect himself," the mother-of-nine said. "Now, his confidence has improved and he has started teaching his younger brother karate." Many of the children and young adults Mr Ayyad teaches have taken part in karate championships and competed against able-bodied individuals. "When such children take part in championships, the look on their parents' faces is worth every effort, especially when they get the black belt," the coach said.

"Many parents hide their children. I want to send a message for every child not to give up, and for parents, no matter what their children's disability is, that through physical and emotional support, their children can improve." The children are trained free of charge at the club. Able-bodied children who practise with their disabled peers pay a minimal fee of 12 dinars (Dh62). Coach Ayyad uses the fees to transport children to the club, buy them gifts and take them to lunch.

Regardless of the club's modest surroundings, housed as it is in an old hangar, the karate lessons continue to change lives. Bassam Mohammad, 23, has severe scoliosis, which has deformed his back. Since the age of five, he has practised karate with Mr Ayyad, and has now gained his brown belt. "I feel happier," he said. "I can defend myself in case someone attacks me. I also help the coach in training others."

Manal Amleh, 17, has spastic feet. She also has a brown belt. "She used to walk on her toe nails, but with the help of the exercise, she improved and she can walk much better," Iman, her younger sister, said. "My sister's personality changed this year. She used to go to her room when we had visitors, and browse the internet. Now she sits with them. "Two weeks ago, I saw one of the boys, who used to make fun of her, hit her on the shoulder.

"I looked from the window and I saw her hitting him back." @Email:smaayeh@thenational.ae