At the refugee gym on Lesvos, 'Never give up' is the motto

At the refugee gym on Lesvos, ‘Never give up’ is the motto

A refugee athlete does push-ups during boxing training.BUILD GIlio Bisquetelli

‘energy!’ Kickboxing coach Mehdi, an athlete in his twenties in a flare shirt, roars to typical gym beats. His twenty or so disciples answer the shriek louder and uniformly, without stopping for a second for their spreading leaps.

Apart from that word, the Mahdi gives his instructions in Persian, since almost the entire group is from Afghanistan. Sometimes the few Congolese and Swiss volunteers involved look around in question. The youngest aspiring boxer is Yassin, a thirteen-year-old boy with a mischievous look in his bright blue eyes. The eldest, more than fifty years old, spends every moment when the Mahdi does not look his way to take a rest.

Don’t go crazy

Nasrallah Jafari, 24, does not need the coach’s control to push himself to the limits. His eyes focused on infinity in high concentration, as sweat trickled down his bare back in streams. Mahdi trains kickboxing three to four times a week. It is the most important activity in his life, he says before training. “It helps me not to go crazy.”

In this rundown warehouse, on a barren hill next to the Ouzo factory, Jafari found a new home after being washed up alone on the Greek island two years ago. He had traveled for months from Afghanistan by then, escaping as a member of the Hazara minority as the Taliban became an increasingly prominent presence in his student life.

This was followed by a dangerous journey through Iran and Turkey. “We saw people dying at every border,” sums up training companion Amir Mohammadi, who took the same route a few weeks later. The island is the temporary end point of their journey, where most of the young boys in the gym have seen their asylum applications rejected over and over again.

There is no return for them, because Turkey has not accepted the evacuation for a year and a half. There is also no legal way to apply in Europe. But here, on the carpet as sweaty as in every gym in the world, Jafari and his friends don’t feel the scent of hot Greek asylum service on their necks.

Gymnasium students training Image Giulio Piscitelli

Training students from the gymBILD Giulio Bisquetelli

I got t-shirts

“4 miles from Groningen”, “Poslop Schorl”, “Marathon Club France” are written in large letters on the backs of the boys. The brightly colored T-shirts were donated from places asylum seekers, sometimes stranded for years in a tent camp on this Greek island, can only dream of at the moment.

But as Jaafari wraps his hands around the sparring, worries about his family in Afghanistan and the question-hanging future are just as elusive. Even when Moria’s old camp burned down last year, the gym was his lifeline. While thousands of people spent a week on the road homeless, Jafari and a few enthusiastic gym buds took refuge in the shed, sleeping on the mat at night, and training during the day.

Back home in Afghanistan, Jafari had never played kickboxing before, but now he dreams of the International Glory competition and stars Dutch champions Rico Verhoeven, Badr Hari and Alistair Overeem without any issues.

Two students wearing boxing gloves.  Giulio Bisquetelli Statue

Two students wearing boxing gloves.BILD Giulio Bisquetelli

social communication

Jafari is very ambitious and would like to become a professional, but the gym means more to him than that. He explains after training that it is a community, while founder Estelle Jane intervenes for a while. “The big boss,” Jaafari says with a wink. She goes at her home for a two-week vacation, to France, and embraces each of them warmly as a deposit.

Jane created the project when she came to give swimming lessons to refugees on Lesvos in 2017. “I wanted to create something where people could take responsibility for themselves.” It started with a jogging group. This was followed by more and more sports classes that arose from the initiative of the camp inmates themselves, such as coach Mehdi, who participated in the official competitions in his native Iran.

The Sports Club (“Yoga and Sports for Refugees”) has three branches in Greece, because members who were granted asylum and moved from Lesvos to Athens or West Ioannina, continued to see each other and exercise together.

Nasrallah Jafari trains in the gym Image Giulio Bisquetelli

Nasrallah Jafari trains in the gymBILD Giulio Bisquetelli

private donations

Jafari proudly displays on his phone a picture of Sohaila, one of the few members of the kickboxing group, who now runs the Athenian branch of the refugee gym. Jan explains that the organization lives on private donations, noting the fitness equipment and climbing wall. Sometimes it comes to money, for example for meals that visitors can eat before or after training, which seem more nutritious than in camp. Sometimes also for things, like T-shirts from Holland.

Clothes are now plentiful, but other than that, Jane points out, pointing to the floor. The black carpet shows cracks after two years of heavy use and should already be replaced, but the 800 euros required for this is a big cost for this gym – members pay nothing, of course.

Meanwhile, on the carpet, Mehdi concludes the training with a long motivational speech, to which his students listen exhausted but with interest. Jafari then translates: The coach talked about his former colleague who is now in Germany and found a club there, where he can now train for free and will soon play in official matches. Never give up, the message was delivered to Jafari. With shining eyes: “He started boxing here, just like me.”

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