Feeling the burn at Madrid For Refugees’ fitness and boxing classes

By Daniel Welsch

The ab workout from hell. Madrid For Refugees’ boxing class in Retiro Park
The ab workout from hell. Madrid For Refugees’ boxing class in Retiro Park

I’m feeling the burn.

Ten pushups. Then lunges to the end of the field. Then 10 squats.

And then our teacher – who not so long ago was in the Gambian military – announces that instead of walking back to our starting point, we’ll be doing something he calls ‘Lion in the jungle.’


Lion in the jungle.

Why not?

Apparently, this means crawling back across 50 metres of muddy grass. Knees up, back straight, only hands and feet touching the ground.

It’s torture.

After about 20 metres, I’m ready to give up. And normally, I would.

But almost everybody else in the group is about 10 years younger than me. And I don’t want to be that old guy who drops out, gasping for breath as soon as things get hard.

Why am I here?

Good question.

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in Parque Retiro, and rather than sitting with a beer in my hand or taking a leisurely stroll, I’m at another fitness and boxing session.

Organised by Madrid For Refugees (MFR), the classes are a great way to get out of the house and work up a sweat. And being encouraged (and watched) by a bunch of 20-somethings has me going to extremes I’d never go to on my own.

Depending on the day, we’ve got people from the US, the UK, India, the Philippines, Spain, France, Peru and more.

And our teacher, GB, a refugee from The Gambia, is like no other martial arts teacher I’ve had. For one thing, he’s so quiet and encouraging. When I’m hitting the pads he calls out combinations, and at most responds with ‘good’ or ‘very good’ to my mediocre technique.

There are none of the insults I’m used to getting from other teachers. ‘You [comment on my masculinity]. You call that a jab?’

I thought that’s how martial arts worked. But not for GB.

Then there are his catchphrases.

‘Only 20 reps!’ he says about the most difficult ab exercises.

Yeah. Only.

‘One more round!’ he says, meaning there are only a few more minutes of this specific torture, before we move on to torturing some other part of our bodies.

And my personal favourite:

‘Let’s take a five-second break.’

In reality, while everybody has a drink of water, the five seconds end up being nearly a minute.

But it’s just barely long enough to catch my breath… and to get ready for the next round.

Refugee training retiro park madrid
Jab, jab, cross on the pads! Daniel tests his skills with GB.

I have to admit that before meeting GB, I didn’t give The Gambia much thought.

It’s apparently the smallest country on mainland Africa, consisting of a narrow strip of land along the Gambia river. It has a bit of Atlantic coast but is otherwise contained within Senegal. The local languages include Mandinka, Wolof and Fula (though the official national language is English).

GB doesn’t talk much.

He’s quiet.

He only occasionally shares anecdotes about training in The Gambia, in the military.

Long runs with a rifle and a pack, through African heat. Swearing at new recruits as he puts them through workouts (perhaps) similar to the ones we’re doing in the park, most of us thousands of miles from home.

I wonder about the stories he isn’t telling. In any case, it’s eye-opening.

I’ve been living abroad for more than a decade and I’ve met all kinds of people from dozens of countries. But my involvement in MFR has put me in contact with people whose lives are, I assume, difficult beyond anything I care to imagine.

And they’ve come through it all as perfectly normal, decent people.

It reminds me of one of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:

‘You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.’
Easy in thought, but difficult in practice.

A lot like these last 30 metres of ‘Lion in the jungle.’

If you want to come to boxing classes, they’re on Saturday mornings (and sometimes Tuesdays and Thursdays as well). Contact jobs@madridforrefugees.org or the author for more information.

About the author: Daniel Welsch is an author and blogger who’s been living in Madrid for more than 10 years. You can check out his webites. Learn some English at madridingles.net or read about life in Madrid on the Chorizo Chronicles at expatmadrid.com.

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