In pictures: The Syrian karate kids
After fleeing his hometown of Aleppo in 2013 amid fighting between Syrian opposition and government forces, Wasim Stouta (background centre) took refuge in the town of Jeineh in rural Aleppo. Here he encountered many children orphaned or suffering from disabilities as a result of the ongoing fighting. With the support of his parents, he decided to set up a school to ensure they did not miss out on an education.
Stouta, a black belt in karate, also runs a dojo each Thursday where children can learn the martial art. Many of the children have special needs, including those stemming from war injuries, as well as forms of autism and physical disabilities.
Stouta says that he relied on donations from wealthy Syrians to cover the first two years of operation at the school. He has since been supported by funds from an NGO that helps vulnerable children. The school hosts 35 children but when transportation is available that number can rise to 60.
Those who run the school say that by teaching them karate, the children will be better prepared to integrate into wider society thanks to the physical and mental benefits the sport brings. Abdel Rahman (pictured left) says: "I've been training at the karate centre for four years and I have benefited a lot from it. I like coming to the training days with my friends to learn new moves from Wasim."
Classes have previously been brought to a halt after successive Syrian government offensives against rebels in the surrounding region. After a decade of war, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have recaptured a number of former rebel strongholds but the opposition continues to hold territory in the north of the country, around the city of Idlib, and in the south, bordering Jordan.
With no effective government to provide services in opposition-held areas, children with special needs must rely on international aid agencies, as well as local organisations, to ensure they do not miss out on an education and the care they need.
Many of the children enrolled at the school were displaced during the fighting for Aleppo and subsequent battles between the Syrian government and rebels. Syria's largest city was split between opposition and government forces, until troops loyal to Assad defeated rebel fighters in 2016.
Unicef says that more than two million children in Syria are out of education, with a further 1.3 million at risk of dropping out. Across Syria, around 40 percent of schools have been damaged or destroyed by fighting.
According to the UNHCR, around 11.6 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011. Around 5.5 million have left the country, while 6.1 million are internally displaced.
A decade of fighting has resulted in an ongoing stalemate, with international powers, such as Turkey and Russia using their military muscle to maintain the status quo.
(All photos by Moawiya Atrash/MEE)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.