This article originally appeared on VICE Greece.
It’s 1PM on a Thursday in Pedion tou Areos (the Field of Aires), one of the largest parks in Athens. A group of 15 people – mostly men aged between 16 and 22 – has been meeting here every day since September of 2020 to train in martial arts, for four hours at a time. They’re assisted by coach Hamid Norusi, a 30-year-old Iranian-Afghani kickboxing champion and refugee, who teaches them boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai.
The sun is at its hottest, but Majid, Zahra, Shabir and Iqbal – all refugees from Afghanistan – are used to far harsher conditions. After arriving in Greece, most of them passed through the infamous Moria migrant camp, which was once known as the largest camp of its kind in Europe, before it burned down in September of 2020. Some of them were already experienced boxers and Muay Thai athletes before they migrated. Others found it an escape from the tough realities of life in Moria.
Known for its overcrowded conditions and lack of basic resources, the Moria camp – located on the Greek island of Lesbos – was described as a “living hell” by people living and working there. Intended to house just 3,000 migrants, at its peak Moria hosted approximately 13,000.
The sessions led by Norusi are organised by Yoga and Sports with Refugees, an NGO based in Lesbos that promotes physical activity as a way to help refugees and migrants cope with the stresses of life and their asylum process. Since its creation in 2017, the project has also expanded to Athens, encompassing a range of sports from hiking to yoga and mixed martial arts. “This is where we can make the greatest impact,” the NGO states on their website, before expanding on their aims of helping people to maintain hope and to pursue their dreams of living a safe life.
Their martial arts programme, offered both on mainland Greece and on Lesbos, is geared toward helping migrants channel “energy, anger and tension”, and encourages “discipline and emotional management”, says the NGO. Overall, more than 20,000 people have practiced various sports through the project. We spoke to some of those training in Pedion tou Areos about their stories, their routes to Greece and what martial arts offers them.
Iqbal Αlikhil, 17.
Alikhil came to Greece from Afghanistan via Turkey by himself, about a year-and-a-half ago. “I walked for 18 days, all day and all night,” he said. “We had no food or water.” He arrived in Thessaloniki and then made his way to Athens. “I was very afraid of the police, because I had no documents,” he said.
Alikhil was homeless for seven months, so he camped out in the same park where he trains today. “It was very hard. Lots of rain sometimes, too much sunshine at other times,” he said. Now, he lives in an apartment in Athens with other Afghans and says his roommates have helped him a lot. He has a permit to stay in Greece for the next six months, but has been approved to reunite with his two brothers, who live in Germany. He hopes he’ll be able to move there soon.
Alikhil has been boxing for two years. Back in Afghanistan, he was told he was pretty good, but there were no resources for him to improve. After moving to Greece, he started training in the park alone at night. “Whenever I felt sad for living like this, I used to box to feel better,” he said. Eventually, he started training with the others in Pedion tou Areos, and says he’s been learning a lot.
“I want to become a world champion,” Alikhil said. “Once I arrive in Germany, I will immediately sign up to a club to continue boxing.” He also hopes to get back to school and to file an application to be reunited with his parents, who are in Afghanistan.
Majid Ahmadi, 20. Won the 2020 Panhellenic Muaythai Federation (PMF) championship.
Majid Ahmadi’s family left Afghanistan for Iran when he was 14. “That is when I started practicing Muay Thai,” Ahmadi said. Three years ago, he went to Turkey, walking a large part of the journey. From there, he made his way to Lesbos, where he lived in the Moria refugee camp for a year-and-a-half.
“The situation in Moria was very hard. I spent all day in queues to get food. People would fight with each other, because they couldn’t stand waiting any longer,” Ahmadi said.
Living through the winter in the camp’s tents was also very harsh – he used to get cold, and rain would always find its way in. After his first year in the camp, he started volunteering with Yoga and Sports with Refugees, training and teaching Muay Thai. “This organisation really helped me,” he said.
Today, Ahmadi lives in a flat provided by a local NGO he collaborates with. He shares it with five other people, with two sleeping in each room. He’s also back in school after a hiatus. “I am learning Greek, but it’s a tough language,” he said. “I want to stay here and continue training.”
Ahmadi trains for up to six hours a day, and dreams of winning more titles. He’d also like to travel to Thailand one day to perfect his technique, once his documents are finalised. “Martial arts are my whole life,” he said.
Zahra Khware, 17.
Zahra Khware has been in Greece for a year. She came from Afghanistan via Turkey with her family, and spent six months at the Moria camp. “We didn’t have enough food or running water. Every time it rained, the tent was flooded,” she said.
Now she lives in a flat in central Athens and has become friends with other refugees, including a girl who brought her to one of the training sessions. “I train three times a week. I want to become strong, and I work hard to be able to do everything. My goal is to take part in competitions,” she said.
Khware hopes to one day join her father in Germany, and is waiting to get her documents in order. Although she didn’t manage to enrol this year, she hopes to continue her education in Germany. “My biggest dream is to become an actress,” she said.
Hamid Norouzi, 30. Coach and kickboxing champion.
“I’m originally from Afghanistan, but we went to Iran when I was a baby,” said Norouzi. In Iran, he competed in more than 200 kickboxing matches and won some international titles. “My whole life was there,” he said.
Two years ago, Norouzi moved to Greece with his family, who are now scattered all over the country – he’s in Athens, his parents and two siblings are in Thessaloniki, and his brother still in Moria. “We’re trying to bring him here,” he said.
Norouzi stayed at Moria for six months, and helped train refugees through Yoga and Sport with Refugees before continuing the programme in Athens. “I am a fighter, a professional athlete, I have no other job,” Norouzi said. “I want to become a world champion. The ring is my whole life.”
Shabir Hasani, 18.
Shabir Hasani left his family behind in Afghanistan to come to Greece, via Turkey, over three years ago. Hasani spent a year-and-a-half in Moria and continued training throughout that time, even while life there took its toll. “There were frequent fights between refugees from different countries,” he said.
Now in his last year of high school, Hasani is learning Greek and English, and hopes to study computer science at university. “I don't know yet if I want to stay in Greece or leave, but my goal is certainly to become a professional Muay Thai fighter,” he said.
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