There was no brass band, no speech by the mayor. There weren’t even any flowers. And yet the gathering in De Zaagtand community center last Tuesday was a

Zohor Al Musry, who arrived in the Netherlands as a Syrian refugee at the beginning of this year, taught her first paid karate class. She is proud of every euro she earns. And each euro earned means one less euro received in government assistance. By setting up this class, Zohor is earning her way off of benefits. No speech from the mayor can compete with that.

Fifteen minutes before the first class begins, the most eager pupils are already congregating in front of the apartment block where Zohor lives with her husband and two children. They ring their bicycle bells in unison to attract their karate teacher’s attention. Most of the children are refugees themselves, although some are the children of Turkish or Moroccan immigrants. They trail along behind Zohor as the procession makes its way to the nearby community center.

Photos by Niels Blekemolen

Photos by Niels Blekemolen

Last year, the 28-year-old Zohor won bronze in the under-60-kg class in the Syrian National Karate Championships. Now she stands in a Dutch gym, her fists clenched. Twenty-six barefoot children, boys and girls ranging in age from 4 to 14, watch in breathless excitement.

Suddenly, a sound system fills the room with tinny music. Like Zohor’s breathing, the music is slow, relaxed. She bobs into a shallow bow, and then in an instant, she’s transformed into a dynamo. She punches and chops. She demonstrates a variety of kicks. And with each blow and kick, a full-throated “hoy!” sounds from deep in her belly. She finishes just as abruptly as she began, with another shallow bow.

Then, in a voice that carries to the furthest corners of the gym, she begins to speak. “This,” she says to the children, “is what I’m going to teach you all.” She turns to the parents, mostly mothers, sitting in chairs arranged along the wall. “This is what I’m going to teach your children.” She says all of this in Dutch, even though her command of the language is still shaky. For the remainder of the class, she gives all her instructions in Dutch. Even when her pronunciation isn’t perfect, everyone understands her expressive gestures.

Photos by Niels Blekemolen

Photos by Niels Blekemolen

Zohors life in Syria

For the 28-year-old Zohor, karate is a source of energy and vitality. From the time she was her daughter’s age – Rafif is nearly four – Zohor’s father took her to karate class. From the beginning, her natural gift was apparent. At the urging of father, she would spar with older children from more advanced classes. Most of the time, she held her own.

But then eight years ago in Damascus, Zohor got married and soon became pregnant with her son Omar, now nearly seven. A “turbulent time” followed – that’s how she describes the period when the escalating civil war forced them to move repeatedly. The last few years have been the most chaotic. Their house was destroyed. Her husband, Mohammad, now 35, was forced to flee Syria in 2014.

That was the moment when she turned, once again, to the sport that had always given her strength in the past. And soon, against all logic, she decided to train for the Syrian national championship. Against all logic, because she hadn’t trained in years. Because for a top-level she was already old.

The photos on her smartphone were taken by Ahmad Marof.

The photos on her smartphone were taken by Ahmad Marof.

Training helped her bear Mohammad’s absence; he arrived in the Netherlands in September 2014 and was granted a residence permit in March 2015. Training helped her deal with the uncertainty of not knowing when her family would be together again. In order to enter the Netherlands legally, she would have to travel to Lebanon. While she had the documents she needed to make the trip, her children didn’t. A human trafficker would have to take them across the border illegally, accompanied by their karate-loving grandpa.

Zohor shows me two photos on her smartphone, both of which have special significance to her. One, a portrait of herself with her hair up and makeup done, symbolizes her womanhood. The other, an action photo taken while she was training for the championship, shows her strength as a karateka.

Zohors life in the Netherlands

On January 13 of this year, Zohor, Mohammad, and their two children were finally reunited in the Netherlands. “A miracle,” her husband says. Shortly thereafter, a plan took shape – to begin her own karate studio in Hoorn. “I’m full of ideas,” Zohor says, “for both the sport and the business.”

First, she went to see the folks at the community center. They referred her to the municipal authorities. And they, in turn, said she needed to contact Stichting WerkSaam, the regional employment agency for West-Friesland. There, she and her husband were told to “try talking to the community center.” That’s how she learned her first Dutch expression: literally, to be sent from the cupboard to the wall, or to get the runaround.

At that point, she took matters into her own hands. Lacking access to a proper space, she organized a trial karate class at a playground. Because she had gotten to know many, many other refugee mothers in her short time in the country, plenty of children showed up for the class. The kids came and signed up for karate, for €10 a month each (about $12). With this income, Zohor could rent the community center’s gym space for two hours a week.

“I love children,” she tells me. “And I love karate. I think that karate can offer children life lessons. Karate teaches them to develop strength and to use it in a disciplined way. It’s an art of self-defense, with no room for violence at all.”

Zohor might just bring in some €150 to €180 a month after taxes teaching her karate classes. That amount is then deducted from the monthly benefits she receives. In other words, her work leaves her no better off, financially speaking. Yet she’s prouder of that income than of her bronze medal.

“This way, I cost the Netherlands less money. The first wages I earned myself are more important to me than the entire assistance package,” she says, this woman who studied banking for four years back home in Syria. Her eyes sparkle. “One day I’m going to pay back all the benefits, plus interest.”

—This report is part of the New to the Netherlands initiative. This project is made possible by support from the Translated from Dutch by Liz Gorin and Erica Moore

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