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Creative Capoeira classes raising confidence in refugee students in western Sydney

17-year-old Ayat Akeg practising moves she has learnt in the Capoeira Angola class at Pendle Hill High School.
Ayat Akeg practising moves with Namareq Abdelrahim they have learnt in the Capoeira Angola class at Pendle Hill High School.

ABC: Lisa Clarke

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Ayat Akeg displays a sense of self-confidence other 17-year-old teenagers would envy.

Flicking her long braids as she walks down the corridor at Pendle Hill High School, she laughs when teachers comment on her hairstyle of the day — brushing them off and telling them they'll have to check back in with her next Thursday when they'll be pinned up in buns.

It's a level of confidence which took years to develop, and learning Capoeira Angola had a big part to play.

When her family migrated to Australia from Egypt in 2006 after ongoing concerns with its government, Ayat was unable to speak English and struggled to fit in.

"It was hard [integrating] because you don't know the different cultures," she says.

Ayat was introduced to a unique class run by STARTTS and Project Bantu, bringing Capoeira Angola to young people from refugee or similar backgrounds in western Sydney.

"I started Capoeira when I was in Year 7 and I was confused back then. I didn't know ... the meaning of any of it. And then I got into it and learnt so much stuff through it, physically and mentally," Ayat says.

The classes teach an Afro-Brazilian artform combining elements of martial arts, music and dance. They are designed to promote empowerment, respect and self awareness among the students.

"Mentally it helps you; it makes you calm and it makes you think. And if you're in any situation where you need to react fast ... Capoeira takes you back and it makes you think and it makes you walk away from the bad situation you're in," she says.

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"We're all in this platform where you can be yourself. No-one judges you, and you're just you. You can only be you. You can't be anyone else. You can't fake it."

Seeing a positive difference

Deputy Principal Peter Lavercombe oversees the small high school west of Parramatta, teaching just over 300 students from 27 different nationalities.

He says he was a bit sceptical of the classes at the start, but has been pleasantly surprised with the results.

"When they first arrived at the school a lot of them had difficultly transitioning because of the different cultural backgrounds, but Capoeira has really brought them on," Mr Lavercombe says.

He says because his school is so diverse, sometimes the students from different cultural backgrounds haven't been able to understand the Australian sense of humour, and don't quite know how to take it.

"They've gone from a situation where they were finding it really difficult to transition into the mainstream Australian-type schooling, now they're very relaxed, very confident, very comfortable with the whole situation," Mr Lavercombe says.

"The kids like coming here. Our attendance has gone up through the roof. Which is usually an indication they're pretty happy with the place."

Students learn the physical movements of Capoeira Angola to help them work through internal struggles they're dealing with.
Students learn the physical movements of Capoeira Angola to help them work through internal struggles they're dealing with.

ABC: Lisa Clarke

Struggling with inner demons

Ajok Theip Dor has lived in Australia for 15 years, and began struggling with mental health issues, bullying, and family problems in high school.

"In high school in Year 7… the school knew something was wrong with me, so they took me to counselling," she says.

"My behaviour was off."

Many of the young people at Pendle Hill and other high schools in western Sydney from refugee backgrounds have come from war-torn environments, and have experienced trauma as a result of their family's dispossession.

Mr Lavercombe says this trauma has sometimes been the cause for behavioural issues and students' ability to communicate with fellow students or adults.

"When they first came to the school they were very reluctant to converse with adults. Now their confidence is through the roof. They've developed a confidence as a result of this particular activity," he says.

"When I first started Capoeira I was very close-minded, I didn't really pay attention to anybody or anything. I was just me, me, me.

The weekly classes are lead by Capoeira master Mestre Roxinho across 15 different schools in NSW including in Newcastle, Coffs Harbour and Wollongong.

Mestre Roxinho guides the group, teaching the movement, songs and dance of Capoeira Angola.
Mestre Roxinho guides the group, teaching the movement, songs and dance of Capoeira Angola.

ABC: Lisa Clarke

This week marks the 9th annual STARTTS Capoeira Angola Youth Encounter, hosting special guest Treinel Freguesia from Sao Paolo, who also works with at-risk youth in Brazil.

"It's really interesting because it's an exchange of information, and it's not just me teaching," Mr Freguesia says.

"I'm learning from them as much as they're learning from me."

His visit is bringing a different experience to the Australian students, showing them different ways of self-expression.

"Working with refugees is different from the young people I work with in Brazil, who already know Capoeira as part of their culture," Mr Freguesia says.

"I've had to adapt to engage them.

"The learning is happening through a construction of the relationship between me and them. We're building a relationship together."

The week builds up to their end-of-year event on Friday, where more than 100 students will converge to interact and share their knowledge with each other.

Treinel Freguesia does a handstand in class.
Special guest Treinel Freguesia from Brazil shows off some Capoeira Angola moves at the Pendle Hill High School class.

ABC: Lisa Clarke

A bright future ahead

For students like Ayat, the world is now her oyster thanks to Capoeira.

"I want to be a humanitarian, and I really want to help people. But some lady told me at work placement you can't help people if you can't help yourself, so you've got to help yourself and then help people," she says.

"So right now I'm going through school, getting my grades up.

"I also want to be a beautician, do makeup as well. There's so much I want to do."