Steel and Soul. How a Gambian refugee and his boxing classes led to the idea of Chefugee

More than a few people have asked me how the idea of Chefugee came about, and I always tell them that it all began with boxing lessons.

Back in the Fall of 2015, when I was the (admittedly reluctant) head of the Madrid For Refugees Jobs team, I was collaborating with a refugee center in Vallecas to help refugees find employment and earning opportunities in Madrid. The center’s departamento de empleos would send me CVs of refugees, and I distributed them to potential employers.

One day, as I was checking out the skillsets on the CVs, I found out that one of the Syrian refugees was both a chef and a boxing instructor. So I asked if he was available to teach me boxing. (Side Post-It – I used to kickbox back in the Philippines and well, I really wanted to get back into hitting stuff.  You know, to relieve stress.)

They got back to me and said that the Syrian refugee was more interested in finding kitchen work, so they referred me instead to another refugee, a Gambian ex-soldier who competed and won in boxing tournaments back in his home country.

So that’s how I first met GB*. We had our first class on a wintry day in February last year with four other freezing students in the best training ground of all – Retiro Park.

All right, I admit that my attendance has ebbed during the year (hey, I had an elbow injury AND was half blind last year!) BUT in spite of my dumbass excuses, I’m absolutely elated that GB’s classes and students have multiplied since that first day in February. His loyal boxing students have even made a Facebook page to attract more students. Today, he teaches thrice a week, with his main big class composed of international students every Saturday morning.

So wait, how the hell did this lead to the Chefugee dinners then?

Project Chefugee was based on the same simple model. Instead of trying to convince employers to hire refugees, we turned the tables and made clients come to refugees precisely because of their talents. It worked so well for a boxer – so why wouldn’t it work for chefs as well?

Anyway, here’s a blog post that I wrote last May for the Madrid for Refugees website. (Note 1: this was edited by a British volunteer so apologies if my spelling is rather different and I sound more polite than usual!)

(Note 2: this blog post was written back when the Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh was still in power before he finally stepped down after ruling for 22 years).

Boxeo5
Day One. My good friend and Internet-famous Daniel Welsch of Chorizo Chronicles and Lonely Planet ready to sting like a bee.

STEEL AND SOUL

GB cuts an imposing figure.

Built like he was fashioned out of pure adamantium, he makes Wolverine look like a scrawny kid still going through puberty.

And yet this striking former soldier in the Gambian military turns out to be soft-spoken, soulful and disarmingly polite. When I first met him, it was this stark contrast between his physical appearance and his gentle manner that I found most interesting. His Whatsapp profile is a personal message that perhaps offers a clue to his past struggles: ‘I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.’

Seeking asylum in Spain for security reasons, GB arrived in Madrid in the spring of 2015. In February he was living in the refugee centre in Vallecas, when Madrid for Refugees first contacted him about teaching boxing classes in Retiro Park.

Boxing is one of GB’s passions, he has trained in the sport since he was a teenager and he also competed in tournaments in The Gambia. MFR proposed that he give boxing classes and offered to help promote them through social media.

Boxing and bonding

In just three months, GB’s boxing classes have already attracted a sizeable number of loyal students of all ages and nationalities. He now teaches boxing three times a week in Retiro Park, with the Saturday morning classes regularly drawing anywhere from seven to thirteen students.

It seems the stars have aligned for GB; he gets to practise his favourite sport, in his favourite park in Madrid, and earn some money at the same time.

‘Boxing with you guys is not only provided financial support for me, it is like you guys have given me a job. I’m working and getting paid and earning a living from boxing, the sport that I love. I have fun and after training, I go home and have money. But it is far more important than that, any time I am with you guys I feel better because I don’t have time to think about things that make me feel sad or depressed.’

He shares that teaching boxing has also helped his personal growth. ‘It is also a learning process for me because I am improving by training with the class. I have a good time, I feel comfortable because I am with kind people. Like yesterday, after training, the time we all spent together was wonderful. Because these are the things that I am missing in my country.’

Brendan Tinney, one of GB’s regular students, shares, ‘I’ve been boxing with GB for the last few months now and my overall impression is he’s a fantastic person and trainer. He’s really grown into the group, helping it to change from a group of acquaintances to a group of friends. I’ve spent time with GB outside of the boxing environment as I consider him now a friend, not just a trainer. A friend who shows great concern and interest for people on a personal level.’

Thoughts on home

Like every person transplanted from their own soil, GB reveals an intense longing for home. ‘I miss being with friends. I really, really miss my family. I keep wondering about them and what’s going on over there. I miss my son a lot.’

And yet “home” right now is in turmoil. The Gambia is currently undergoing political unrest, with protesters mobilising on the streets to demand for the end of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s 20-year grip on power. Jammeh, called the “billion year” president for once telling the BBC that he “will rule for one billion years”, has been accused of  various human rights violations by several human rights groups. With Gambian national elections on the horizon this year, reports of arbitrary arrests, police brutality, torture and suspicious disappearances are being reported. According to a recent article in The Guardian, “Disappearances are not uncommon in Gambia… In Jammeh’s 20-year reign, there have been reports of state torture, deaths in detention and security forces using live ammunition against protesters.”

On being in Madrid

GB turns wistful when I ask him about his loved ones.

‘I miss my beautiful friendships. In The Gambia, I had friends I could talk to, hang out with any time I wanted to, friends who were always there when I needed them, even friends who woke me up from sleep and I didn’t complain! I am not lonely there. I feel okay being with them because of the same culture, the same lifestyle, what they know is what I know. It’s not like here, when you are with people you have to mind your words and actions very carefully because it’s a completely different culture. You can say something and it can have a different meaning in the way they analyse or see it. I have to be careful with things.’

In spite of being far away from home, he finds a lot of good things about his adopted city.

‘Madrid is a beautiful city, it is full of life, there are so many places you can visit, there are beautiful parks you can go to. But the thing that I like most about Madrid is the people. The people of Madrid are open and friendly and helpful. Even if I don’t have friends like my friends in Gambia, people here are good, they are beautiful, they are open.’

Like many expats who were navigating the streets of Madrid during their first few months after moving here, GB was surprised at how helpful people are with giving directions.

‘When I ask people how to get to a place, they help me, they try to explain it to me, most of the time they even want to walk with me to try to show me the directions. I love that about the people of Madrid and I wasn’t expecting anything like that.’

Reverting to his Zen-like calm, I ask about the message written on his Whatsapp profile. He tells me that finding the comfort he seeks comes down to love. ‘I believe that when there is love there is comfort,’ he says. ‘What makes you rich is what you have in your heart.’

*name withheld to protect the refugee

About the author: Natalia Diaz is a journalist and a former speechwriter for a UN agency in Madrid. She writes regularly for ¡Vaya Madrid!, an online magazine for the English-speaking expat community, and heads the Jobs and Community Integration Team of MFR. She is from the Philippines.

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Interested in boxing classes with GB? Email jobs@madridforrefugees.org

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