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Community Kicks

Alnatur teaches his class

by William Denselow, Palestinian Beat Reporter —

Galloping across the blue matting of the gym floor, a toddler in a baggy karate uniform runs over to his mom to show off. Moments earlier he held a piece of wood. Now he holds two. A deadly karate chop did the damage. Much to this boy’s delight.

“Developing champions in life, for life.” That is the message of a new martial arts gym that has recently opened in Paterson, N.J. Its mantra is simple. Greatness dwells within us, it just needs to be channeled.

“Our goal is to create great martial artists and great leaders in the community,” said Master Tarek Alnatur, 34, owner and head trainer of the Elite Black Belt Academy.

The gym now has over 80 students and is fast becoming a community hotspot. Although breaking pieces of wood is impressive, the martial arts academy has bigger plans for the town of Paterson.

Alnatur is Palestinian-born but has lived nearly his whole life in Paterson. He has been running the gym since it opened in June with his wife Suhair and aims to use the gym to improve the local area.

Alnatur said he believes karate classes provide a much-needed positive outlet for young people living in the crime-ridden city. In 2009 there were nearly twice the number of violent crimes recorded in Paterson than the rest of New Jersey.  Last February, 125 police officers were laid off, which has done little to help the problem. Although 37 officers have been subsequently added, the cut still equates to over a fifth of the police force. 368 police officers now operate in Paterson.

“This is the perfect sport to build confidence and stay out of trouble,” said Alnatur who believes that the lessons learnt in the karate Dojo can be transferred into everyday life.

One initiative that the academy has introduced is to establish a greater connection between schools and the gym. In fact, karate students can only move up in belts if they can prove they are excelling at school. “We’re not looking for A, B or C grades,” said Alnatur, adding, “What we are looking for is, are they courteous? Are they showing respect? The pillars of the Black-Belt.”

The local schools have been cooperating by sending forms to the gym with information about how their students have been behaving. “The schools love it,” said Alnatur.

Feedback has been so positive that teachers are referring more kids to join Elite Black Belt Academy in the hope that their performances at school will also improve

“The kids love the academy. If it means improving their grades, they’ll do it,” said Alnatur.

When looking around the brand new studio, the messages of the black belt are clear for all to see. Written in large blue letters on the still pristine whitewash walls are words that symbolize what it means to be a martial arts master. Discipline. Respect. Leadership. These words are not only scattered on the walls, but are recited in every class, by every student.

“Karate is not just kicking and punching,” said Alnatur, it is part of a greater ethos.

Parents are also enthusiastic about the initiative. Nina Ayyad, 37, has only been taking her two sons to the academy for three weeks but is already a fan. She initially signed her kids up to help her eldest son Yousef, 10, lose weight but she said she appreciates what the gym is doing for the area.

“It all helps the children,” she said.

Although Yousef hasn’t memorized the karate mantra yet, he has picked up a few lessons from Alnatur, his business partner Mohammad Sheikh, 26, and their assistant Hamada Sheikh, 19.

“It teaches you if you’re strong not to do bad stuff to people,” said Yousef, as he hid behind his mom.

Alnatur has big plans for his academy and wants it to become a place where all members of the community can congregate. While education is important, he also believes that ethnic integration will help reduce crime in Paterson. Although 90 percent of his students are Arab, most of whom are Palestinian, Alnatur said he wants his gym to become a bridge between ethnicities.

These plans are not just constrained to the gym studio. The academy has organized events such as community picnics to promote interaction.

“Already the gym is having luck engaging Paterson’s Hispanic community,” said Alnatur.

The academy is also working with Passaic County to address the problems facing the community. The gym has put on several evening events with the police to inform parents and their kids of the dangers they face in the area. Speaking at a recent seminar, Detective Javier Castellanos, 44, who has been working in the Sheriff’s Department Gang Intelligence Unit since 2002 said, “in the county we have a gang presence everywhere.” Working in unison, Alnatur and Castellanos hope that greater awareness will keep future generations away from gangs.

Smashing pieces of wood in two is one thing but smashing crime in the community will be an entirely different challenge for Alnatur and the Elite Black Belt Academy.

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