In the rebel-held southwest Damascus town of Darayya, a Thai martial art is giving young men a way to channel negative energy through discipline and training.

“Opening a sports club was an old idea of mine,” says 29-year-old Darayya resident Ahmad Khshini, a Muay Thai kickboxer who competed nationally and internationally before the war in Syria.

Taking advantage of a lull in the bombings of his rebel-held town in accordance with the “cessation of hostilities” deal that went into effect in late February, Khshini opened a training gym earlier this month to teach residents Muay Thai.

Today, some 65 people between the ages of 10 and 33 are utilizing the large storeroom that Khshini and several others converted into a makeshift gym to learn the martial art.

“Muay Thai gives an individual a high level of fitness and increases the confidence of that person to defend himself if he has to,” Khshini tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar. “It helps to alleviate the negative pressures and burdens of our current situation.”

The blockade, however, impacts even the sports training.

“I’m trying to train the guys with a program that doesn’t require extreme effort, since we’re living under a blockade.”

“Sports require a lot of exertion and a balanced diet,” says Khshini. “There is little food available.”

Q: Where did you get the idea to set up a gym in Darayya? Why now?

Opening a sports club was an old idea of mine. I’m a kickboxer and a Muay Thai fighter, and I’ve participated in a number of matches and competitions on a provincial, national and international level. Because of the war, I had to put off my desire to do that.

When things calmed down somewhat in Darayya [amidst the ceasefire], I decided to start the club with the help of some other young guys from the city. Even during the battles, though, we used to take advantage of periods of calm to train people. Now, though, after establishing the club, I’ve been able to get these young people to a higher level of the sport.

 Residents of the blockaded Outer Damascus city of Darayya learn Muay Thai in a sports club opened earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Khshini.

Q: When did you start practicing Muay Thai? What is its importance in your life and in the lives of the other young people practicing it?

Muay Thai is originally from Thailand. It’s a martial art that depends on striking with the hands and feet, with an emphasis on strikes with the elbows and knees. It is also considered one of the most violent martial arts, combining strength, flexibility and aesthetics.

I first started kickboxing when I was 14 years old, which is about boxing and foot movements, with rules for the safety of its players. Muay Thai fundamentally depends on violent movements with elbows and knees. After training in kickboxing for three years, I moved on to Muay Thai.

For me, sport is an essential part of my life, regardless of the type or the risks it entails. On a personal level, I still dream of continuing in it towards bigger achievements.

As for its importance for other young people, it helps to alleviate the negative pressures and burdens of our current situation. Muay Thai gives an individual a high level of fitness and increases the confidence of that person to defend himself if forced to do so, keeping in mind that there are recommendations against using Muay Thai moves in the street because of their danger.

Q: Where did you train people in Muay Thai before setting up the club? Where did you get the mats and gloves?

I used to train people in a rudimentary space because I didn’t have the ability to set up a club under the circumstances. The club I have now is a spacious storeroom with simple furnishings. We’ve had a lot of difficulty equipping the club with limited means. We brought the basic supplies from the remaining gyms in the city. There are three of them, which were for judo, karate and kickboxing.

Right now, I’m trying to train the guys with a program that doesn’t require extreme effort, since we’re living under a blockade. Sports require a lot of exertion and a balanced diet.

 Muay Thai sparring in rebel-held Darayya. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Khshini.

Q: How many people are training with you? Are most of them practicing Muay Thai? Are there other sports as well?

There’s been an ongoing high demand, and the number of Darayya’s young people participating in the club is increasing. We’re trying to expand the center more and train kickboxers to help me train the participants.

Those in the club are aged 10-33 years old. The exact number of participants varies, but is on the rise. There are 25 children who are just starting out, and two training sessions consisting of 15-20 older people. Some others have stopped training until we expand the space so that it can accommodate everyone.

Some people in the club practice different sports, and there are people to encourage them to develop their talents. They’re using the club as a first step towards developing themselves more. There are also young people who just started Muay Thai after watching the trainings and liking the idea.

Q: What difficulties are you facing? How have residents responded to your project?

We have limited resources. Because of the blockade, there is little food available, which the body needs after exerting any athletic effort.

A lot of the residents have accepted the idea of the sports club, and have signed their children up.­­