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Building Bridges Not Walls

While some politicians are building walls in an effort to solve social problems, a quiet revolution has been taking place with the same aim, for centuries, within boxing clubs around the world.

Barbed wire fences until recently have been separating refugees in The Jungle, Calais, from Britain. Meanwhile, the Calais Jungle Boxing Club, started by Brit Josh McDonald, has been building bridges between men from countries in turmoil. Arsala Khan, a professional boxer from Afghanistan, who lived at the camp, worked at the boxing club, and dreams of making it on the professional boxing circuit in Europe, would regularly train alongside a Sudanese fellow boxer - significant given the nationalities’ frequent clashes inside the camp.

Afghan Arsala Khan (centre), training alongside men of many different nationalities, at the Calais Jungle Boxing Club

Meanwhile, across the ocean, Minneapolis, Minnesota residents Ryan Burnet and Phil Williams are counterbalancing their new President’s pledge to build a wall across the other end of the country by opening their arms to kids and young adults at the Fighting Chance Boxing Club.

Indeed, boxing has brought the very different Burnet and Williams together - Burnet is a Minneapolis restaurateur, while Williams was a street kid from New York City whose brother is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence. “We are from two different walks of life, but boxing brought us together,” says Williams. And in turn, Burnet and Williams are bringing together inner-city kids who might easily have been separated by being in rival street gangs had they not been given the chance to change at Fighting Chance.

And such stories are not new. Champion Irish boxer Barry McGuigan famously brought together the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland during the brutal height of the Irish Troubles in the 1980s. In the fiercely Loyalist territory of Tiger’s Bay and, just a block away, in the Republican neighbourhood of New Lodge, the same cry of “Leave the fighting to McGuigan” echoed across these divided communities as sacrilegious violence was replaced, briefly, by united support for the world champion featherweight. And rather than wear the traditional tribal colours of Republican and Loyalist Northern Ireland, McGuigan’s shorts were emblazoned with only a white dove of peace.

As current champion Carl Frampton articulates, “In boxing we’re allowed to come together. Protestants and Catholics, the north and south, everyone. I’m in an Irish vest, even on a mural in Tiger’s Bay, because boxing brings the communities together. When Barry was fighting, trouble stopped in the streets. People came together. I’m also bringing people together.”

Irish and World champions Barry McGuigan and Carl Frampton

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