Al Sharki fights on despite harsh conditions in Syria

Najlaa Al Sharki, the only Syrian competing in the Asian Fencing Championships here, has had training disrupted in her war-torn homeland.
Najlaa Al Sharki, the only Syrian competing in the Asian Fencing Championships here, has had training disrupted in her war-torn homeland.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

WHEN a group of teenage girls were playing handball at the Syrian Police Sport Club in 2009, a tall, nimble and fast player impressed the club's manager.

He asked Najlaa Al Sharki, then 15 years old, if she wanted to be part of a revival of fencing in Syria.

Six years later, she is her country's only representative competing in the Asian Fencing Championships in Singapore.

NO PEACE OF MIND

I heard a lot of bombings and was really frightened whenever it happens. My morale was really low throughout the civil unrest.

- Najlaa Al Sharki, on life in Syria

FUTURE GOAL

I want to be a fencing coach one day. Some day, I will be looking out at kids playing and I will be asking them if they want to learn how to fence.

- Al Sharki, on her ambition

The 21-year-old epee fencer lost to Iran's Pourrahmati Mahsaossadat 15-11 in the direct elimination rounds yesterday afternoon but the Syrian wants to be an Asian fencing champion one day.

"I want to be the best in Asia. I want to go to the Olympics one day," Al Sharki, who stands at 1.7m tall, said in Arabic through a translator.

"But the war has to stop first."

The civil war in Syria made it very difficult for the fencer, who lives in Damascus, to obtain visas for overseas exposure.

The violence has also restricted Syrian fencers living outside Damascus from entering the capital to train.

Said Al Sharki: "I heard a lot of bombings and was really frightened whenever it happens.

"My morale was really low throughout the civil unrest. Thankfully, all my friends and family are safe.

"There's nothing much I could do. I will stay indoors and if it's at night, I try to sleep it off."

When Syria stopped participating in overseas competitions, the International Fencing Federation approached Heythem Habbej in 2009 to reintroduce the sport in that country.

The 69-year-old Tunisian is the only fencing coach in the strife-torn country.

However, when the civil war broke out in 2011, Habbej had to leave Syria because of the unrest.

For two years, Al Sharki trained without a coach, doing only physical conditioning.

But despite the lack of professional guidance, Al Sharki, whose equipment and training fees are sponsored by the Syrian government, returned to the fray to finish 23rd in the 2013 Under-23 Asian Fencing Championships held in Kuwait.

She was placed 13th in the 2014 Asian Junior Fencing Championships held in Amman, Jordan.

And the plucky young adult is already looking forward to give back to the fencing scene in her homeland.

"I want to be a fencing coach one day," the physical education trainee teacher said.

"Some day, I will be looking out at kids playing and I will be asking them if they want to learn how to fence."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2015, with the headline 'Al Sharki fights on despite harsh conditions in Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe