Young newcomers training to become future wrestling champs

Mohammed Al Krad was a 12-time wrestling champion in Syria. In 2016, he and his family came to Canada. Now he's focused on training the next generation of wrestlers here in Ottawa. 

Coach Mohammed Al Krad was a 12-time wrestling champion in Syria

Mohammed Al Krad, 37, is a 12-time Syrian wrestling champion turned coach who wants to share the sport with the next generation of newcomers in Ottawa. (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

Mohammed Al Krad knows wrestling, and he knows what it means to start over in a new place.

Al Krad was a 12-time wrestling champion in Syria. In 2016, he and his family arrived in Canada as refugees.

Now he's focused on training the next generation of wrestlers here in Ottawa. 

Wrestling [is] not just a sport, wrestling [is] a message.- Mohammed Al Krad

Al Krad is coach of the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization's (OCISO) new youth program, aptly titled "Wrestling with Champions."

Every Wednesday and Friday evening, about a dozen boys ages 10 to 18 hurry into a small makeshift gym at the OCISO's Newcomer Youth Centre near Bank Street and Alta Vista Drive, excited to learn from Al Krad. 

Mohammed Al Krad said wrestling is more than just a sport; every week there's a new life lesson for the students. (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

It was his idea to start the program, which launched in March thanks to funding from Grants Ontario. 

"Wrestling [is] not just a sport," Al Krad said. "Wrestling [is] a message.... I send that message to all the student[s] in [the] Ottawa region." 

Basel Al Zoubi, 42, is the program's coordinator and a Syrian refugee who came to Canada in 2015. He said the sport can teach self-confidence and "reduce social isolation for kids." 

The sessions are taught in Arabic and most of the newcomers are from Syria, Al Zoubi said. 

Mohammed Al Krad started wrestling when he was 13 years old. Now, he sees himself in his young students. (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

Jehad Kadah, 13, has already gained a lot from the program. 

"We can learn how we can defend ourselves, how to be champions," Kadah said. 

Al Krad was about the same age as Kadah when he started wrestling, and said he sees a bit of himself in his students. 

"I hope all the students be[come] a champion in the future," he said. 

It is possible that some of these champions-in-training will go beyond the program. Al Zoubi said the National Capital Wrestling Club has offered to waive the normal $250 registration fee for some promising young wrestlers. 

Program coordinator Basel Al Zoubi, 42, said the wrestling class teaches kids self-confidence, and can also help to reduce social isolation for young newcomers. (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

Mohammed Al Meqdad, 16, is one of the older boys in the program and said he hopes to live up to Al Krad's legacy. 

"I want to become one day a champion of the world, or Canada, to make my parents and my family and the Canadian people to see me as a refugee [who had a] big dream and [got] his dream ... without giving up," he said. 

Al Meqdad said the kids in the wrestling program are like a family. 

"We all ... love each other and help each other. If someone has a problem, any problem ... everybody will help him, like we're all together all the time."