Fighting chance for refugees

Taekwondo school sending portion of profits to help Syrian youth

Kelly Sullivan

The 50-student strong NW Sport Taekwondo school in Monroe is the first in the U.S. to extend a hand to 1,000 displaced peers who live thousands of miles and an ocean away.

Master Michael Colver, a USA Taekwondo National Champion, initiated a local campaign to help fund the Zaatari Taekwondo Academy at the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. NW Sport Taekwondo’s May proceeds, aside from operational costs like electricity, will help purchase vital equipment and a secure changing area.

Colver said he settled on the approach one month ago. He was perusing a list of online films, and he came across “After Spring,” a 2016 documentary that follows families living in the 80,000-member camp; more than half are children under 18 years old.

“These kids are more worried about a bomb going off than spiders under their bed,” Colver said.

He “wouldn’t call it a crisis of thought,” Colver said, but he determined to assist the refugees “on a human level.” He said he wondered about the parents — fathers like himself, who no longer had a way to tell their children they were absolutely protected.

Colver contacted the “After Spring” production team before the credits ran. They walked him through how he could show the movie in Monroe and the Sky Valley community. Interest has steadily spread across the U.S. Taekwondo community since he announced the school’s involvement on social media and reached out to other instructors.

This means the mats and changing areas South Korean master Charles Lee needs at his academy may become a part of daily practice in the near future.

The Monroe school’s May donation will cover one-third of the costs for the mats, or about $1,000, Colver said. It is hard to explain the significance of padded flooring. Mats protect the student from falls, cushioning the joints that are stressed by hundreds of weekly punches, kicksand jumps. They regulate surface temperatures, and create a barrier for dust, which can pool and be disruptive to movements, he said.

Interference can be precarious in a practice where precision and control are key.

Shipping containers will be used for changing rooms, Colver said; that one is self-explanatory, as “girls changing in tents in unsecured areas doesn’t work, right?”

Colver has also been in contact with Lee, who was given permission from UNHCR, the United Nation’s refugee agency, to teach in the camp. Participation ballooned, and the many reports of kids acting out within the camp began to subside. Both girls and boys participate, he said.

Master Braxton Allen Warren, who is associated with schools on both the east and west coasts, pitched the need for funding for the academy during the Team Trials divisions at the 2017 National Collegiate Taekwondo Association Championships at the University of California in San Diego last weekend.

The objectives of Taekwondo are many. The exercise teaches both mental and physical strength.

The school in Monroe has operated in some form in the community for at least 30 years, Colver said. Another Monroe school master, Stacy Criswell, said he recalls classes held in an uninsulated barn in Sultan for about five of those years. The student-turned-instructor said the school helped him get out of a bad situation. He grew up in Sultan, where drug use was high among his peers.

Criswell said Taekwondo can teach internal fortitude. Instructors ask their students not to be the very best, but the very best they can be, he said.

Student Jayden Leavitt, 10, has been practicing Taekwondo for more than a year. He said he learned focus and attention between burpees and sparring his classmates.

“It’s a fighting class; it’s fun and it’s highly recommended for maybe anybody,” he said.

Twila Koonan, 32, has practiced for two years. She said she is a survivor of domestic abuse, and is now able to spend more time out of the house, stand up for herself and get into arguments.

“I was timid, I was very anxious and easily upset,” Koonan said. “I didn’t understand a life outside of those situations.”

Roughly 70 percent of her healing she attributes to Taekwondo. It has been a steady growth, which she said has partly come through class practice, as well as through internal work. She tried therapy, but it didn’t give her the confidence she needed to feel she could prevent another similar situation in the future.

Koonan said the kids in the camps need to know how to feel that safety. They can’t think it or believe it, “they have to know,” she said.

‘After Spring” will be shown at the Galaxy Theater in Monroe on May 17. Entry is free, and all donations will go the Zaatari academy.

Photos by Kelly Sullivan: Issac practices combination kicks on a sparring dummy Thursday, March 30, at the NW Sport Taekwondo school in Monroe. Ray practices combination kicks on a sparring dummy Thursday, March 30, at NW Sport Taekwondo school in Monroe.


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