Lifting-up spirits alongside weights

champ camp
The Champ Camp was founded in 2017 by Waleed Abu Nada and aims to actively empower and develop the capacities of youth in Al-Baqaa Refugee Camp through sports. (Photos: Handout from The Champ Camp)
Just 20 minutes away from Amman, in Jordan’s largest refugee camp for Palestinians, Al-Baqaa, is a community nestled in a small training hall, also known as the Champ Camp. اضافة اعلان

The Champ Camp, founded in 2017 by Waleed Abu Nada, aims to actively empower and develop the capacities of youth in Al-Baqaa Refugee Camp through sports.

“To me, The Champ Camp was the most special experience of my life so far, for so many different reasons,” Abu Nada said.

Before becoming what it is today, the camp was the place where community leader and Olympic weightlifter Ali Al-Gabri taught weightlifting. Due to interest, the training hall turned into a weightlifting school and The Champ Camp was born soon after.

The camp started as a school project that Abu Nada led by merging his passion for weightlifting with his cemented Palestinian identity. Today it grew into the largest women weightlifting team in the Arab world.

Its purpose was to build champions at athletic, social and educational levels, and to offer them an opportunity to engage and learn from diverse youth development programs.

The programs focused on different other issues as well, such as social entrepreneurship, art, English language skills, and women empowerment.

The “Girls Talk Baqaa’’ program, a women-only platform offering weekly talk sessions using interactive activities to question knowledge and societal misconceptions, and “Bloom series 2”, an intensive five-week entrepreneurship and innovation program tailored for the champions at The Champ Camp, are two such programs.

They helped participants learn how the power of sport lies in its ability to blur the lines of division and difference within the community. The camp also trains children in weightlifting, giving them reason to hope that one day they will be part of the global Olympic weightlifting community, despite a usually challenging start, said Abu Nada.

“Rahimeh, the youngest weightlifter in The Champ Camp, practiced by lifting a mop until she was able to lift actual weights,” Abu Nada said.

Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the champs

The pandemic “has heavily and disproportionately impacted the lives of the kids in The Champ Camp”, imposing financial burdens on families.  “Hence, The Champ Camp focused on shifting mentalities during that time, tying financial incentives with weightlifting as an activity, to push parents to allow their children to leave their houses to practice weightlifting as an alternative income-generating activity”, he added. “We tried to cover everything for the kids in order to sustain their attendance in The Champ Camp. This included offering them laptops and internet, paying them financial incentives, checking in with their parents and families, and more,” Abu Nada said.

Self-representation and competition

The impact The Champ Camp had on Al-Baqaa youth’s self-awareness, representation, and identity was tremendous, said Abu Nada.

“Some of the Palestinian children were never recognized in official papers before,” he said.

“I have had a champ walk over to me only to mention how seeing his name in the paper for the first time, after we issued him a formal visa to compete in a regional weightlifting competition, left him surprised,” Abu Nada remembers.
The impact The Champ Camp had on Al-Baqaa youth’s self-awareness, representation, and identity was tremendous.
The camp’s reputation helps attract young people, even if difficulties are involved.

“Two girls had to sneak into the camp, being prohibited from practicing such a type of sport culturally gender-segregated by their parents,” said Abu Nada.

The model of The Champ Camp

 “My work with Professor Muhammad Yunus’ social business team has upskilled my capabilities to develop the Champ Camp’s model,” Abu Nada said.

Today, the two most important components of the camp are agility and structure, he said, adding that he envisioned a model that openly invites diverse youth leaders to design, build, and implement diverse short-term programs with long-term sustainable impact.

“Hence, The Champ Camp is envisioned to grow and develop into a sustainable launch pad that can be implemented in every camp at several locations, led by diverse community leaders as well,” he said.

The Champ Camp’s global recognition

“The Champ Camp was able to break criteria and compete for an exclusive European award in Germany, and this has translated into having the champions’ families value the camp more over the years, especially when it was able to also introduce the word Palestinian in the global Olympics Committee website, further bringing international attention to Palestinian refugees’ identity and their existence within the global Olympics arena. Hence, its role as an NGO transformed into two: offering refugees tangible opportunities and attracting global attention to the Palestinian identity,” said Abu Nada.

The Champ Camp’s relevance today

The camp offered participants, for the first time, the chance to travel, to learn proper English conversational skills, to work on their personal development and self-representation, to lead within their community in Al-Baqaa, and financial rewards, said Abu Nada.

Sara, an outspoken, competitive champ who was trained by Captain Ali Al Gabri, got diagnosed with a severe disease that forced her to quit weightlifting. However, her love for the sport pushed her to train other girls in the camp. With Sara as a leader the rest of the girls in the camp were willing to build up on the teamwork she was so strongly committed to.

“The Champ Camp was a transformational experience. It did not change me, but it empowered me not only on a physical level but on a mental one as well”, Sara said.

The Champ Camp instills in participants fundamental values to grow and thrive, including but not limited to resistance, dedication, punctuality, hope and teamwork. “Hence, they were able to develop not only at individual level, but collectively as well into the largest women weightlifting team in the Arab world,” said Abu Nada.

Peace-building through sports

The Champ Camp is a testament to sustainable social impact far beyond the typical definition of “peace-building through sports”. It grew as a holistic model with an integrative, immersive, and sustainable approach focusing on the individual and collective lives of all the participants.

Abu Nada is an award-winning social entrepreneur, a Ford Foundation Global Fellow, the first-ever Arab recipient of the prestigious Filippas Engel award in Germany, an AMENDS Fellow at Stanford University, an Advisory Board member of I Learn, a startups mentor, and a young leader at the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

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