The Gym For Survivors


This is a short photo essay about an amazing idea to have a gym in Ritsona camp which is dedicated for the male residents. It documents the life of the gym-goers and what it means to them to have this space. This photo essay also aims to hopefully inspire people to rethink about what they can actually contribute to the refugee crisis.

It only takes a simple idea to make those lives affected by the crisis whole and meaningful again.


The summer sun wasn't going to set for another few hours and a cool evening breeze soon took over the blazing heat. "If you not drunk ladies and gentlemen, Get ready to get f***ed up." Something caught my attention from afar. 'LMFAO's Shot' was heard blaring from an abandoned room. This would not have been allowed under the ISIS regime. It is punishable by death to even listen to western music. But here, they played it to the highest volume as if they were celebrating their freedom in the face of the regime. When was the last time they had a decent wifi connection to tap into? It must have been years now. Depending on when they fled from their homes. Maybe updating their playlist before escaping to Europe wasn't on their top priorities. Maybe, they left hastily. So I set my course over the red dusty earth to find out what was happening in there. The loud bass could have possibly shattered the non-existent window panels. White plastic bags were hung up instead to dampen the harsh light coming in. The room was a simple and spacious one. A huge blue canvas was spread out on the floor. What I thought was going to be a small party for little children turned out to be completely something else. Soon after, few other men came in like they had answered the adzan (prayer call) for a work out session. They must have spoken among themselves, "It's time. Let's go." They left their slippers and shoes at the door, just as their customary law have taught them, and entered the room. Do all the gyms in their home country require their users to be bare footed?

“Shots shots shots shots shots shots shots.” Don’t worry, the only shots fired came from the rustic speakers sitting at the corner of the room. Nobody was harmed.

The tempo increases as the sweat glands steadily overworked itselves to the beat of the music. Everyone was feeling rather much alive today, it seems, maybe from having something to look forward to. They soon broke out into their own exercises just as how they try to break out from their mundane routines.

The lactic build up in the muscles must not be from overworking but from the accumulated restlessness. There isn’t much to do in the camp, you see. No outlet, no avenue, no jobs to vent out the deepening frustrations. The only channels for consultation is heavily exhausted and isn’t enough. This agitation that creeps beneath the skin synchronously erodes the masculine identities of some of them. They don’t feel like men, husbands, fathers or a leader at home no more. They need somewhere to feel like they can unmask all of their strength, tension and identities. So they come here. Once or twice per week. Not to stay fit or to grow their biceps or triceps, but to flex away all that is pent up in them. 

Veins popping. Head rushing. A simple table with a rubber mat becomes the arena. One by one takes turn to challenge the previous winner. Flawed in the system maybe. How can he stay on for long. Fatigue will eventually eat into him. But it doesn't matter. After you've gotten so used to losing - losing your home, losing your family, losing your self-identity - winning becomes what you seek, even if it is momentarily, as long as you win again. The adrenaline becomes their only escape from their upturned lives. With everything that they have been and still going through, this is far from living.

This is surviving.

And they are champions at being survivors.

One glance and you might mistake them as future olympians. With the way they stayed focus during the session and the effort they put into their trainings, no one can be faulted if they make that mistake. "Let's do a couple of laps of lunges with weights back and forth, alright guys?" Matthew passed on the instructions to them. But one lap down and that was it. They crashed. They could have been professional athletes but they are way over their prime years now. All of them are above 30, except for one. Maybe they could have made it that far if they have had a different life. And the 'gym' that they train in? It looks like anything but a gym in reality. No machines, no air conditioning, no mirrors, only dumbbells without a rack. But none of that matters. The possibilities are already limitless with just these fixed weights. To them, they wish their life could also have a fraction of that possibilities too. But they don't. So they keep coming back to this derelict gym, thrice per week, as if to dream of all the possibilities that they could have, in another life.

As if it was all orchestrated flawlessly, the session came to an end just as the battery to the speakers died. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. The session wasn't easy on their ageing bodies. They pat each other backs as they returned the fixed weights. It was a good session. But for some of them, this is not the end yet. Another grueling 6km run awaits them. Every evening, as I drove out of camp along with the setting sun, I would always catch Khaleed and his group doing their runs. They never miss. They do not have any other important things to do in the camp either. It was on that drive into the golden hour that I realised that this is more than just a gym session. This is their escapism. They have to seek distractions and relief from their painful realities.

That is the only way they can survive.