Early morning, the narrow streets leading to Charrar Pind are flooded with people venturing out into the city to earn a living for the day. A low-income neighbourhood, which in modern parlance would be called a katchi abadi or a squatter settlement, is located in the middle of one of Lahore’s posh localities. Among its poor residents are the disadvantaged children who must work as daily wagers.
Away from the hustle and bustle, 23 years old Irfan Ahmad rests in a quiet corner of a basement. Fresh from his morning training, he looks at the ceiling fan rather agonisingly, as it slow downs and comes to a complete halt — another power cut. Hailing from Chiniot, Ahmad has been living and training in this basement for the past many years. But this basement isn’t a barrack or something. It is home to a one-of-its-kind Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) gymnasium, known as Shaheen Academy, built for the underprivileged youth of Charrar.
The brainchild of Bashir Ahmad, Pakistan’s first MMA athlete to have competed on an international level, Shaheen Academy was started in 2016 with an idea to help street children and youth from low-income backgrounds to achieve their potential with the help of sports. The Academy is a free gym which through its customised programmes uses MMA as a platform to help these children to grow into responsible and useful members of the society.
“Since it’s a free facility we don’t have to advertise it; word travels around,” says Bashir Ahmad who is presently in Singapore but continues to monitor the affairs of the Academy.
“Our policy of not discouraging anyone saw many youngsters come in [to the gym]. Many of them who developed an interest for the sports have stayed on,” he adds.
The Academy is not designed to impart just MMA trainings; it also offers activity-based sessions where the children are encouraged to develop their cognitive and critical faculties as well as problem-solving skills, build their sense of personal worth and agency, and learn to interact with others constructively and effectively.
In addition, the Academy has discussion sessions on issues such as health, sanitation, substance abuse, personal hygiene, civic sense, and physical abuse.
Being an athlete himself Ahmad is of the view that when the kids from low-income backgrounds are given an opportunity, they can develop their skills and become good athletes.
“For the kids in Charrar, Shaheen Academy is the only place where they can come to experience a disciplined and structured training,” he declares. “MMA trainings equip them with what they need to turn their lives around instead of working odd jobs or loitering about in the streets.
“I can say with a sense of pride that we provide them a new lease of life by giving them a healthy alternative!”
Ever since it was established, numerous positive development indicators have been associated with sports participation, including improved self-esteem, emotional regulation, problem-solving, goal attainment, social skills, and academic performance.
Last week, Irfan Ahmad, who is now the captain of the Shaheen Academy team, made his professional debut at Rich Franklin’s ONE Warrior Series held in Singapore, returning a winner.
According to him, the training he received at the gym played a pivotal part in his win: “My interest in the [MMA] sport was spotted by my mentor Bashir Ahmad who then helped me to learn the ropes. My win is proof enough of the fact that every child deserves an opportunity to follow his dreams. For me that opportunity was Shaheen Academy!”
For many young players, the Academy is also a place where they can continue with their studies. Apart from its evening coaching classes, the Academy also helps to find academic scholarships for its team members.
To meet such high aims as well as its running costs, the project definitely requires a good amount of money. For the past three years, crowd-funding and donations from individuals have been the Academy’s major sources of financial support.
In the future, Bashir Ahmad wishes to expand the Academy’s operations and aims to be associated with more underprivileged kids of the city: “For me, personally, expansion is not on the cards; my focus when I started [the Academy] was to at least produce one champion for Pakistan. With every successive win of our students, their interest in the sport picks up.
“Over the next couple of years, I see many more athletes graduating from the Academy, and competing internationally.”
Whatever the future holds for Shaheen Academy, one thing is for sure: the place is committed to imparting sports training and life-skills, despite its meagre resources. Mixed Martial Arts require as well as teach discipline, confidence, team work, patience, and tolerance which prepare the young and vulnerable children to deal with any potent danger, and also give them a sense of purpose in life. In a society where children are easily attracted to anti-social activities, the Academy engages them in healthy sports. For now, however, Bashir Ahmad and his Shaheen Academy are focused on contributing to the society, one child at a time, through the MMA.