Mumbai based slackliner teaches the sport to Syrian refugee children

Updated: May 20, 2018, 07:52 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

A slackliner from Mumbai talks about his experience teaching the sport to Syrian refugee children in the Bekaa Valley

Pics/Crossing lines
Pics/Crossing lines

On a fine April morning, when Mumbai-based slackliner Samar Farooqui drove into Settlement Number 63 in Chtaura, a town wedged between Beirut and Damascus, all he could see was a sea of white tents glistening in the sun. Under the plastic tarps lived thousands of displaced Syrians who had fled to the Bekaa Valley, the largest affected area and temporary home to over 3,00,000 Syrian refugees, when a brutal civil war broke out in 2011. Lugging the nylon webbings, carbiners and other slacklining equipment, Farooqui and 14 other volunteers, stationed themselves at the nearby parking lot waiting for the refugee children.

This was to be their playground for the next two weeks. Life on the line Slacklining is the art of balancing along a narrow, flexible piece of portable fabric which is usually anchored between two points, mostly trees. "Apart from being a fun fitness activity, it has an incredible ability to connect people, start conversations and change lives," says 27- year old Farooqui. It's the reason he booked a flight to Beirut and signed up for the Crossing Lines Project, an initiative launched in 2013 by Sonya Iverson, a scientist from San Francisco, who uses slacklining to change the way we see and talk about refugees. "I had met Sonya several times at different events. The last time we interacted was at the Move Copengagen festival in Denmark, when she mentioned her plan to introduce slacklining to Syrian refugees and organise a highline festival in Lebanon. It was just the kind of inspiration I was looking for," says the Neral resident who made a career out of slacklining when he founded Slacklife Inc. — a sport and recreation company — in 2014. A level playing field At the Chtaura parking lot, the lines are hooked to the cars in the absence of trees. It's one of the things the sport has taught him — to make the best use of whatever is available at hand. "In Mumbai, I've slacklined in building compounds, garden and promenades. In fact, I was even been arrested for slacklining at Marine Drive," he laughs. Once the line was set up at the camp, Farooqui says the excitement among kids was palpable.

Samar Farooqui

"Children everywhere are the same. You don't have to be concerned about the language or the way you look. I didn't speak Arabic but we managed to communicate fairly well through non-verbal cues in those two weeks. With hand gestures, I would tell them to slow down or stop or move ahead," he says. It was through two local volunteer-based NGOs Salaam and Sonbola that provides education and recreational facilities to those living in the camps in the Bekaa Valley, that the team got access to the children. Forging a personal rapport with each child — there were nearly 400 of them — was difficult for the volunteers who hailed from Iran, America and the UK.

"On the face of it, you couldn't tell that the children had gone through so much trauma. There were some who were more reserved and took time to open up," he says. Periodically, the team would sit down and discuss the day's progress. "If one of students perhaps struggled through the slacklining experience and we noticed it, we discussed it and psycho-analysed it till we came up with a solution to make sure that we didn't leave with someone feeling demoralised," he says. In the two weeks, Farooqui picked up a couple of Arabic words from them, and in turn taught them English. What was most interesting, though was how the sport changed the dynamics among the children themselves. "When you are standing on the rope, wobbling and holding the hand of the person standing on ground, you are opening up to them. So the bullies in the group ended up bonding with the rest. Everybody was on the level playing field," he says.

Samar Farooqui

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