Ummul Choudhury

Capoeira 4 Refugees

Ummul Choudhury

Ummul Choudhury is the co-founder and CEO of capoeira4refugees. The ngo brings Capoeira: live music, laughter, and play to the lives of children in war and conflict zones. As a Muslim, Brit-Bengali, social entrepreneur, a linguist, traveller, writer, mother, Ummul likes to take herself and others "out of the box".

Ogunte: What was a pivotal moment in your life as a woman in social enterprise?

Ummul: You said it really, it's the idea of ‘woman’ that has grown with me. I’ve faced many pivotal moments in my life that have always taken me further in my identity as a woman. Because many of my other identities seem to be owned by other people. I like to live outside of the boxes that are so easy to put me in. Sexually assaulted but it was him that ended up on the ground with me kicking him; Muslim, but not here to be an apologist for the actions of an ISIS member recruited out of Manchester; Brown, yes, and?

Ogunte: You work with Capoeira in the Middle-East. What should the world specifically know about Capoeira?

Ummul: Capoeira was born out of slavery in 16th century Brazil. It consists of live music, sport, play, philosophy and rituals. In war and conflict zones, music, laughter, play are essential to helping children deal with their experiences of loss, death, and trauma.

Capoeira 4 Refugees - Ummul Choudhury -Syria

"Despite the roadblocks, I feel like we make miracles happen every day".

Ogunte: How does Capoeira4Refugees work?

Ummul: Well, I can say that in terms of ‘firsts’: we are the first to bring capoeira to refugee camps in the Middle East for example, and we are the first to bring capoeira to Syria, we are also the first to create a global network linking capoeira community projects.

Since starting out in 2007, we’ve used capoeira to help over 60,000 young people across the Middle East, including Syria.

Over the past year alone Capoeira4Refugees has worked with 14 refugee communities in Jordan, Palestine and Turkey, including in Zaatari Refugee Camp, and Azraq Refugee Camp. We work with both girls and boys, and reach around 400 traumatised children a month.

I’m now working on strengthening our partnerships with the Brazilian Government, who’ve supported us locally, as well as with international sport and development networks such the Swiss Academy for Development and Peace and Sport.

We have just launched our unique grassroots Changemaker Awards: a Fellowship for capoeira players who already run their own projects. We also have our first female changemaker, which in the Middle East context, is incredibly important, as women do face an uphill battle to be seen as equal in society, as well as under the law. Female role models are essential, as is educating young men to adapt their perceptions and support women’s equality.

Al Tanf, music class, Capoeira4Refugees

Gender violence: Girls learned they can say no

Ogunte: How does Capoeira4Refugees' work impact on people?

Ummul: In the Middle East there are entrenched, frankly, sexist and misogynistic attitudes towards women - which girls also internalise themselves. In refugee communities issues around poverty, depression, having an unknown future, traumatic experiences, increases the vulnerability of women - especially to sexual exploitation and domestic abuse. In Palestine we worked with girls to learn about their own bodies, and the fact that they had rights over their own bodies: that they could say no.

Our research showed that girls felt empowered, confident and had a new awareness about their own power as individuals. Our projects are also first on the scene as it were.

We train our staff to see effects of abuse and refer them to relevant partners. We often have cases of abuse that we identify, and are able to then work with partners to intervene. All our trainers are trained on gender issues, with the concept of gender equality being an integral aspect of our programmes.

Capoeira4Refugees Roda

I feel especially passionate about this, as I volunteered in a women’s safe house in Syria, where we used capoeira to literally change how girls, who had been sexually abused, had a relationship with their own bodies.

Working with roadblocks in war zones

Ogunte: What are the key roadblocks in working in such a context?

Ummul: We work in war zones. Roadblocks can be:

  • Security clearance to get access to a refugee camp, it takes a lot of time and paperwork;
  • a demonstration, riots,
  • military incursions,
  • people getting shot,
  • All this can stop classes happening;
  • Working with communities to accept sport and culture as necessary activities to help positive mental in young people is hard work;
  • Funds transfers to the Middle East get stopped regularly as we are triple checked to make sure money is not going to terrorist activities;
  • Funding is always scarce and aid money is highly political.

Then there is the reaction to capoeira, parents tell us that their children are speaking more, are less depressed, they have friends. Girls and boys end up playing together.

Ogunte: How can the capoeira community around the world contribute to your efforts?

Ummul: I love this community. It’s its own spirit! We’d love you to join our social media streams, but also volunteer on all these wonderful projects: for instance: do a fundraising roda for us – and livestream it on Facebook. We’ve already learned so much from capoeira, it’s great that we can also give back to the wonderful work that is part of the capoeira culture.

Capoeira 4 Refugees (Formerly Bidna Capoeira) - Video

Ogunte: What would you like your donors to understand about your work, that would help them too immensely in their endeavours?

Ummul: In the charity sector, asking for money for such things, like HR, development, risk, is looked at as somehow corrupt. If we want fantastic solutions then we have to invest in risk and in potential and in innovation. The public is incredibly generous, but donors have a responsibility to educate the public to understand it is necessary to pay for professional fundraisers, administrators, managers, development.

Ogunte: In your next book, you are about to reflect on your journey as a migrant, a woman, an NGO leader, etc. Why is it important to do that? And what would you like someone to tell you after they’ve read your book?

Ummul: Yes, I’m writing a book called “United Nonsense”. It reflects on starting up a charity in Syria, the Arab Spring and the paradoxical world of international development. As a brown, female, social entrepreneur in the Middle East, and outside of the Middle East I had a huge advantage. And I think it’s important for the general public, and those in the sector, to have their views challenged by the more unorthodox voices. We do have a problem with elitism, and different voices are always needed to help all of us see things in more than one way. If someone reads my books and is in, anyone can change the world. Really.

Ogunte: What do you know now that you wished you had known from the beginning?

Ummul: I should have done a finance course first. Having a deep understanding of the financials is essential to building an entity. And even more important for a charity, as there is no profit.

Ogunte: What is the question that no one has ever asked you you wish they had?

Ummul: "Why don’t you do a finance course" ;-)

Ogunte: Finally, what does your world look like in 2030?

Ummul: That's the year I’m having an amazing party to celebrate my 50th birthday. I know by then Capoeira4Refugees will be a successful global network, with capoeira itself firmly on the world stage as an accepted tool for social development.

Follow Capoeira4Refugees on Instagram.

Interview produced by Servane Mouazan for Ogunte.
Learn from other ImpactWomen interviews here.


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