Patrick Burke ©ITG

The work of World Taekwondo and the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation (THF) at its flagship Humanitarian Sports Center at the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan has garnered a strong reputation in sport. A fitting location, then, for the opening of the second Hopes and Dreams Sports Festival.

Testament to the potential of the THF's initiatives was the presence of Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) President Francesco Ricci Bitti, who urged other sports to follow taekwondo's lead.

That is an ambition actively shared by World Taekwondo and its President Chungwon Choue, the founder and chair of the THF.

On the occasion of the second Hopes and Dreams Sports Festival, Choue was joined by his World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) counterpart Riccardo Fraccari to witness the results of collaboration between two very different sports at the Azraq Camp.

Similar initiatives have previously been staged with United World Wrestling, and there are plans to follow this in the future with International Federations as diverse as the International Judo Federation, International Basketball Federation, the International Table Tennis Federation through its Foundation and the International Powerboating Union.

The Azraq Refugee Camp is located in remote Jordan about 90 minutes south of the country's capital Amman. It is home to approximately 40,000 people, and a visible embodiment of the horrific impact of the war in neighbouring Syria. A conflict that remains as brutal, heart-breaking and impactful as it did in its early days in 2011 when it regularly topped Western news agendas.

Twelve years on, and end does not appear in sight for the war of attrition. With infighting ongoing and the heavily-criticised Bashar al-Assad regime continuing to be propped up by Russia and supported by Iran, more than 6.7 million innocent men, women and children have been forced to flee. Syria's neighbours Jordan and Turkey have provided a source of refuge for many, but the visit to the Camp was a timely reminder of the ongoing devastating impact of this Civil War, even with its impact rarely deemed worthy of a mention on the major news channels back home in Britain nowadays.

The THF has vowed to ensure that refugees and the victims of conflicts around the globe are not forgotten since it was founded in 2015, and its work at Azraq is going from strength-to-strength. Sixty-nine young athletes at the Humanitarian Sports Center are black belts, after a further 27 recently reached taekwondo's highest grade.

What is immediately striking as we stop outside the checkpoint to receive clearance to enter the Camp is its sheer size and scale. We drive for perhaps another five minutes and still there is no sign that the deserted site is inhabited. And then, as we climb up a small incline, a staggering sight of villages that stretches as far as you can see. Their length goes further than we can see in the distance. Their width is illustrated by the drive alongside a huge solar panel farm which helps to power the site.

Reaching the Humanitarian Sports Center is a further 10 minutes in the car. En route, we are greeted by children waving at the convoy. Many of the officials present would describe how they felt touched as soon as they arrived. It was certainly an emotional start to the day, and a zoomed in version of the the vastness we had earlier witnessed.

Ricci Bitti summarised his emotions after spending the day at the Camp.

World Taekwondo's Hopes and Dreams Sports Festival began at the Azraq Refugee Camp with representation from the WBSC and ASOIF ©ITG
World Taekwondo's Hopes and Dreams Sports Festival began at the Azraq Refugee Camp with representation from the WBSC and ASOIF ©ITG

"What is touching me here is the attitude of the kids. The kids are so beautiful and so generous in their participation. They have their own way to thank you for being here, and that is very important," the Italian official told insidethegames.

Ricci Bitti heads up the umbrella body for International Federations for Summer Olympic sports. Choue said he was "really happy" he was able to form part of the delegation that visited the Camp, and praise from the ASOIF President for World Taekwondo's work was particularly satisfying.

The Olympic programme has witnessed a shift towards so-called urban sports, with the likes of 3x3 basketball, skateboarding and breaking, set to debut at Paris 2024. The WBSC's baseball5 - a mixed-gender format requiring only a ball to play - featured prominently on the first day of the Hopes and Dreams Sports Festival. Ricci Bitti believes other sports have simplified versions which could be a welcome addition to the Camp.

"Many of the traditional sports including mine [tennis] are still considered elite sports. We need to change this, and I think this is the reason baseball is here," he said.

"I would encourage all the sports to be part when they have a version of their sport that is acceptable to the situation and the fact they don't need facilities. Many sports are going in this urban direction, and this could be easily translated in a place like this.

"All the sports that can I think should understand how important this is. We always taught that sport has value - what more than you see here?"

The ASOIF President stressed the importance of the THF's work from a social and inclusion perspective, and said he believes it is "very good thinking, and it is to be supported in any way".

Taekwondo demonstrations by young athletes at the Humanitarian Sports Center began the day's activities. The value of taekwondo in this setting is something World Taekwondo, the THF and Choue are deeply passionate about. They believe the sport can benefit refugee children's wellbeing and mental health, and instil values of "how to live as a good global citizen".

"We are not just teaching games, we are teaching them the importance of Olympism and the importance of world peace because they are really suffering from the wars, and moreover how to live as a good global citizen. This kind of training programme and educational programme can teach them," South Korean official Choue insisted to insidethegames.

Lunch on the taekwondo mats at the Humanitarian Sports Center provided an opportunity to interact with those benefiting from the THF's work.

ASOIF President Francesco Ricci Bitti urged more sports to support initiatives in refugee camps ©Getty Images
ASOIF President Francesco Ricci Bitti urged more sports to support initiatives in refugee camps ©Getty Images

For Mohammad Al-Ayoub and his family, taekwondo is a way of life at the Camp. All his children practise the sport, with his 16-year-old son Othman Al-Ayoub among the black belt athletes. His daughter Doaa Al-Ayoub was the youngest refugee ever to receive a black belt in taekwondo at the age of six, became a second Dan at the age of eight last month. Mohammad Al-Ayoub stressed the importance of taekwondo from a wellbeing perspective.

"Taekwondo in the camp means everything for me. This is good for my son, good for the happiness of the children, good for my son to feel power in the heart. It is good for his health and his mind," he told insidethegames.

Othman Al-Ayoub wants to compete at the Olympic Games, and said that "taekwondo gives me the power to make new friends at my taekwondo school".

Reem Al-Harrows, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee, also expressed her love for taekwondo, and wants to become famous as a player, coach or referee.

Choue, Fraccari and Ricci Bitti mingle freely too, and afterwards taekwondo and baseball5-themed gifts are distributed.

Italian official Fraccari's presence is notable. Indeed, baseball5 was arguably afforded an even greater presence than taekwondo on the first day of the Festival. A series of drills by young players provided entertainment for the visitors, and they then put them to the test against an all-star line-up from the world of taekwondo and baseball-softball administration. The game involving two teams of five required players to throw a rubber ball into a basket and for it to remain there, the reward being it was moved one step closer to their side of the hall. The winner was the team which managed to haul in the basket. It ended in a comprehensive victory for the Azraq Camp team, providing plenty of laughs for all present.

After lunch, we then headed outside to a newly-installed astroturf kitted out with baseball5 branding and markings. A short demonstration game underlined the fast-paced, easy-to-follow and well-worth-a-watch nature of the WBSC's innovative new discipline, which continues to make strides even as a relative newcomer to sport.

Fraccari underlined his view on how World Taekwondo and baseball5 can complement each other in a facility such as the Humanitarian Sports Center.

"Two different sports but the same goal - to help these refugee kids to have hope and develop not only sport, but like citizens. I was excited to come here with the curiosity to see, and I can tell you that I was very touched by this experience," the WBSC President told insidethegames.

"I saw the enthusiasm of these kids. The WBSC started this project because baseball5 is in the official programme of the Youth Olympic Games in Dakar, and we must hope it will be for the refugee team.

"For them it is important because I think to stay inside the Camp always can be really hard, and when they practise they can forget problems and they grow in sport and as citizens. I think this experience is important for them."

He stressed that a baseball5 programme could run at other refugee camps because "we don’t need a lot of facilities", and highlighted its mixed-gender format.

"Baseball is a big, professional sport but it is complex. It needs a lot of infrastructure, a lot of material, and I ask myself - I am European, and football for example is popular. Why is it so popular worldwide? If you think, it is easy because you can play with two stones [as goalposts]," Fraccari reflected.

"We tried to take out from the structure of baseball. I saw that in the past, in many countries, they go straight to play a similar game in the cross or the street, so we studied and created the baseball5 that only needs a ball and can be played everywhere. This was the secret of it developing so fast.

"In Africa now, for the first time in history, three African countries qualified for the World Cup in May, so I am so enthusiastic that it is growing exponentially. I think for the refugees, it can help for sure."

Fraccari also believes that baseball5 can serve established baseball and softball countries by providing a pathway to the traditional version of the sports for players, and declared: "I see a bright future for baseball5, even in the Olympic Games."

The ties between taekwondo and baseball5 on this project are no coincidence. Indeed, working with other sports is something that the THF's brainchild Choue actively pursues.

"I am always thinking about how Olympic sports have to contribute to our human society. That's why we started creating the Taekwondo Humanitarian Center," he said.

"After successful launching in Azraq, in 2019 on the occasion of the SportAccord I had the chance to say something. We built our training centre in Azraq and taekwondo is of course a main sport, but I like to open to other International Sports Federation.

"Until now we have 10 IFs joining with an MoU to support the refugee children. In 2019, we had a joint celebration together with the wrestling, and this time baseball5."

Having further sports feature on the programme for future editions of the Hopes and Dreams Sports Festival and potential similar events is a key target for the World Taekwondo President.

"As you saw the title, Humanitarian Sports Centre, not Taekwondo Centre, because we bring more International Federations supporting the refugee children," Choue said.

"Wrestling and judo are combat sports like taekwondo, but besides that we have table tennis and basketball. Basketball we signed an MoU just last November during the occasion of the IF Forum with Andreas [Zagklis] the secretary general.

"The plan was to come together for these activities – it wasn't realised, but maybe next year they will join with us. Table tennis as well, needs a ball and a racquet and is easy to teach. Badminton is also possible.

"We would like to expand. My actual dream was creating a Sports Peace Co to support Olympic sports to teach children and countries. I believe and I hope that through these activities today, we can have a Hope and Dreams Sports and Peace Co, joining other IFs and working together to support and teach."

Other THF initiatives include refugee camps in Elbeyli on the Turkey-Syria border, Rwanda, Eswatini, Mexico and France.

The Hopes and Dreams Sports Festival is set to conclude tomorrow with the Hope and Dreams Refugee Taekwondo Championships in Amman. Choue said that this year's events had generated greater participation compared to last year, and hopes that his latest visit to the Azraq Camp can provide a further boost to the THF's work.

"Everybody is encouraged today. Let's get some more money to support them. We will do our best to support the refugees to really give them hope and dreams for the future," he commented.

"Especially since last year, we arranged a Hope and Dreams Taekwondo Championships here in Jordan, and we have two refugee camps - one in Azraq and one in Za'atari which is larger - and the other refugee children are living in certain areas but they are free to move.

"The taekwondo practising athletes are gathered to have competition. Last year 250 athletes were participating. This year, it is 287 athletes.

"We will all go there to support them and encourage them. I really like to support refugee children, and I am happy that many IFs are joining with us to support."

Taekwondo runs in Mohammad Al-Ayoub's family, and he said the sport
Taekwondo runs in Mohammad Al-Ayoub's family, and he said the sport "in the camp means everything for me" ©ITG

Choue also used the opportunity to provide reflections on the work of the THF in the past seven-and-a-half years, and went further back in referencing the importance of promoting peace in his life.

"In 2015 after a very successful World Taekwondo Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, I was thinking, what should I do to support refugee kids? I decided to create a Taekwondo Humanitarian Center and build training facilities in Azraq Camp. We finished on April 1 2018, so already four years," he said.

"My first visit to Azraq Camp was in November or December 2015, and afterwards we prepared for creating a Taekwondo Humanitarian Center. In that year, 2015, I remember September 21 is the International Day of Peace, and my father initiated this Day of Peace in 1981.

"I worked together with my father, at the time it was broached in Costa Rica, and we had a meeting with the President of the Republic of Costa Rica. At the time, Korea were not even member nations of the United Nations, so Costa Rica initiated this idea to submit a proposal to the United Nations. In the same year at the General Assembly, the UN unanimously accepted the proposal."

The Azraq Camp is managed by the Jordanian Government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The UNHCR's head of the field office Sondos El-Nour praised the THF for its programme, and said interest in its initiatives is growing.

"The taekwondo activities in the Camp is really helping refugees, especially the children. Some of them have been born in the Camp, so to have such an activity is really good for their wellbeing, it is really good for their mental health, and actually this initiative from the Taekwondo Federation is really welcome," El-Nour said.

"There is a high interest from the children, and they want to join in the activity. Even for those who are residing outside of the Camp, they really like it. We have some colleagues who have young children, and the first thing they ask about is the taekwondo activity in the Azraq Camp. It is really famous now in Jordan, not only among refugees."

Baseball5 was displayed prominently on the first day of the Hopes and Dreams Sports Festival, and World Taekwondo seeks further International Federations as partners for the THF's work ©ITG
Baseball5 was displayed prominently on the first day of the Hopes and Dreams Sports Festival, and World Taekwondo seeks further International Federations as partners for the THF's work ©ITG

After an emotional visit to the Azraq Camp, it was time to make the reverse journey to Amman. The first day of the Hopes and Dreams Sports Festival could not help but leave a lasting impression on all who were there to witness the day's activities.

At the risk of sounding cliched, it was a trip which will live in me forever. After we waved goodbye through the window of our car, there was a rather sombre mood on the journey back. All of life's challenges had been put firmly into perspective.

And yet we could also recall some inspiring stories, and recognise the joy that practising taekwondo and baseball5 brought to participants.

Jordan is a country in which taekwondo is part of its sporting history. At Rio 2016, Ahmad Abughaush won its first ever Olympic medal in the men's-68 kilograms event. It was a gold too with his victory against Russia's Aleksey Denisenko.

The delegation from World Taekwondo, the WBSC and ASOIF saw first hand the Jordanian passion for taekwondo on their return to Amman with the second day of the El Hassan Cup. This is a World Taekwondo-recognised event, in which the home favourites were loudly backed by those who gathered at the Prince Hamzah Hall to show their support. Choue, Fraccari and Ricci Bitti delivered one of the medals ceremonies.

The Hopes and Dreams Sports Festival and the ongoing work of the THF is one means by which sport can and must contribute to society.

The collaboration between World Taekwondo and the WBSC provides an example of how International Federations can work together and be a force for good in a fraught world.

The hope has to be that this is built upon with other sports in the coming years. Tragically, the dream of a world free of conflict appears extremely remote, some might say impossible, but is a dream that must be pursued.

Sports organisations can have an enormous impact on a community of millions across the globe, and they have a responsibility to use it to good effect.