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 remarkable one.
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.
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.