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Syrian Children Master Taekwondo At The Zaatari Refugee Camp

A documentary called "After Spring" shows how taekwondo is helping children traumatized by war in the their home country learn self-respect and discipline. "The taekwondo school is a surprisingly uplifting story in the midst of all this tragedy."

Posted on July 2, 2014, at 11:28 a.m. ET

Brian Kang / Via Ellen Martinez

Cinematographers Frank Weiss and Jason Howell film an outdoor taekwondo class.

A few months ago, filmmakers Ellen Martinez and Stephanie Ching flew to the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan for three weeks to begin the first stages of their documentary "After Spring," a feature film about Syrian refugee children learning taekwondo from a Korean martial arts master, Charles Lee.

Handout / Via

The Zaatari camp is the world's second largest refugee camp. The camp was built in nine days in July 2012 and houses 100 families. In the past two years, as war has continued to plague Syria, the camp has grown dramatically.

Here are aerial pictures of the camp in 2012 and 2014.


There are over 65,000 children at the camp, but only about a sixth attend the U.N.-run schools.

"Months after we came to Zaatari, the children were in a state of despair," one father tells Martinez and Ching in the trailer for the documentary.

To help inspire focus, discipline, and self-respect in the children, martial arts masters from across the world traveled to the camp in 2013 to begin training the children there.

Handout / Via

Mr. Lee, a Korean taekwondo master, founded the program in 2013 with the help of the United Nations.

"I have seen a lot of anger inside the hearts of the kids here," Lee said last year. "I want them to be peaceful and to help their neighbors."

Handout / Via

Mr. Lee with two of his students

Filmmakers Stephanie Ching and Ellen Martinez, who lived in Damascus, Syria for four years during High School, read about Lee's work on BuzzFeed last year, and decided to go see the taekwondo school for themselves. They brought two cameramen and a translator.

"The taekwondo school is a surprisingly uplifting story in the midst of all this tragedy," Martinez told BuzzFeed.

"The great thing about the school is that it's there for the longterm and teaching these skills that are looking to the future of the kids."

Handout / Via

"A lot of the kids were scared when they arrived and started to gain confidence and camaraderie doing taekwondo," said Ching. "We want to humanize the Syrian crisis and show the human side of the conflict."

The women specifically worked with Lee, who founded and runs the taekwondo school. He opened one school in 2013, where only boys were taught, and later opened a school for girls as well. Lee says that throughout the past year he has noted a change in childrens' behavior and confidence while they were practicing.

Handout / Via

After a few weeks at the camp, Martinez and Ching filmed interviews and created a trailer for the documentary feature. Now, they're trying to raise money to return to the camp for two months this fall.

"If we're there for two months we hope that we can see the day to day activities at the camp," said Martinez. "We can't tell a complete story in just three weeks."

Watch the trailer here or on Kickstarter.

"The main reason we want to go back is to follow up with the people we met and to see how things have developed," they explained. "Lee is an access point to so many great, unheard stories."

"These kids have seen their family members killed and tortured," Lee told Martinez and Ching.

"My ultimate goal is to raise them to be the next generation of leaders, and taekwondo is the right tool to deliver that message. We must prepare for the future of Syria right here."

Jason Howell
Jason Howell

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.