The Syrian refugee children stand straight in a row, then — when the Korean trainers bark out instructions — they break into martial arts kicks in the air, smiling with delight.
Taekwondo has come to the world’s second largest refugee camp, and a team of Koreans says their training is doing more than just teaching some fancy moves, it is instilling discipline and self-respect in kids traumatized by their country’s civil war.
"I have seen a lot of anger inside the hearts of the kids here," said Charles Lee, a Korean taekwondo master who heads the group of five Koreans giving lessons twice a week to around 50 boys in Jordan’s Zaatari camp. "I see a lot of kids with stones in their hands ready to throw them at anyone."
"I want to teach them to have more sportsmanship and to change how they think. I want them to be peaceful and to help their neighbors and communities," said the 53-year-old, who has lived in Jordan for the past 10 years, working as an acupuncturist. He began the taekwondo program a month ago with the help of U.N. relief agencies.
Children make up the majority of the 120,000 Syrians who fled the military onslaught of President Bashar Assad and now live in the dusty camp near the border with Syria. Only about a sixth of the 65,000 children and teens attend the camp’s U.N.-run schools, leaving many idle. They run barefoot under the scorching sun, often playing their most popular game: throwing stones at each other — and sometimes at onlookers — imitating rebels fighting Assad’s troops.
Ibrahim al-Hamidi, 13, from Syria’s restive southern city of Daraa, said taekwondo "is teaching us good manners, while making us stronger."
"It’s also good for our bodies and muscles and it teaches how to defend ourselves," he said.
Ali Badran, 13, also from Daraa, said: "Taekwondo is amazing."
"Once I go back to Syria, I want to start teaching Syrian students," he said.
For now, the taekwondo training is limited to boys, but will include girls at a later stage. The Koreans are also training 10 adult refugees — mostly former soccer coaches — to give the classes when they leave.
Without school, the children "no longer have any system in their life anymore," said Mohamed Rashid, one of the Syrian coaches. "But we’ve found that an exercise routine which can change children. Maybe even more than schools, because they actually enjoy it."
He said he sees the effect. The boys deal better with their friends, for example. "In one month, their bodies have changed a lot. And they are also more in control of their minds."