Since 2014, the Judo for Peace programme has made it possible to offer judo-based activities to more than 2,000 young people who have thus been able to learn the basics and values of the sport, the objective being to allow better integration of the refugee population, while creating the conditions for crucial social dialogue in a region in which the demographic balance has been strongly impacted by the neighbouring conflict. If at the beginning the judo sessions were organised in the Öncüpinar refugee camp, locally referred to as 'Container City' and located on the Turkish-Syrian border, little by little things have changed. After several years of good and loyal service, the camp closed its doors but the refugees remained and so did judo.
Under the leadership of local authorities and the Türkiye Judo Federation led by President Sezer Huysuz, with the support of the IJF and President Vizer, Öner Ökkeş Buldum, the Kilis judo coach and Kilis-Elbeyli district Sports Director, kept developing the activities in both Türkiye and Syria. Over the past two years, the IJF was therefore also able to visit Syria to see that judo is very present there and of high quality.
In 2023 a new visit was looming on the horizon to continue the work already undertaken but the whole region was hit by a particularly deadly earthquake. If the city of Kilis was fortunately not too badly impacted, although there were about 70 casualties reported, the whole area for hundreds of kilometres around was found under rubble, with more than 52,000 casualties. The annual visit of the IJF was thus transformed into a visit of support and solidarity.
In the first days, the IJF and TJF delegation went to Kahramanmaraş. The city, 65% destroyed or damaged, had not been chosen at random, since it is the birthplace of Öner Ökkeş Buldum, who, although safe, lost 8 members of his family during the disaster.
This visit, recounted in the article of 8th April (https://www.ijf.org/news/show/rebuilding-the-future-where-to-start) was an emotional moment for everyone, but it made it possible to measure the extent of the disaster; quite simply unimaginable. During the few hours spent on site, the TJF handed out basic necessities to judo families now living in tents, as well as toys for the youngest of the population. The structural and mental reconstruction will be long but the message from the IJF was clear: “we are on your side! The judo family is on your side and continues to mobilise.” https://donate.ijf.org/
If the earthquake left deep scars in the landscapes and in the souls, it did not stop the Syrian refugee crisis, quite the contrary. After the visit to Kahramanmaraş, the IJF and TJF representatives went to the refugee camp of Elbeyli, about forty kilometres from Kilis, to discover that the developing infrastructures allowing the continuation of judo for the benefit of families, some of whom have been living there for years and cannot yet consider returning home.
The stay ended with judo sessions in Kilis with young refugee children from the earthquake zone and also with young Turkish and Syrian judoka. Beyond the words and emotions shared by all, these judo lessons had a strong practical and symbolic significance. Despite the horrors of war and despite the consequences of the earthquake, life must go on and to help this, judo continues at all costs.