Activist Munir Bahar opened a martial arts studio in East Baltimore to reach elementary school boys. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)
Inside a Japanese-style dojo in a troubled East Baltimore neighborhood, Munir Bahar guided 40 boys through a series of martial arts techniques: strikes, low blocks and the warrior stance.
Then he instructed them on an art form perhaps more foreign to children: stillness and quiet.
The boys had been working for about an hour in the sun-drenched studio when they came to rest on their knees.
Bahar's words broke the silence.
"Pay no attention to the distractions," the 36-year-old community activist said. "This is when you get stronger. The only thing that matters is your ability to control yourself. Your focus is on the inside. That's what you need to tap into: your power.
"You have to train. You have to learn. You have to sit still."
Bahar built the space by hand, transforming four vacant and boarded-up rowhouses in Broadway East into a refuge for neighborhood children from the drugs, killings and mischief on the streets outside. He said he raised about $360,000 from business owners, grass-roots donors and family members to offer the training free to the boys in grades one through seven in partnership with a neighborhood after-school club.
Martial artists say the training instills in its students respect, discipline and control. Practitioners, medical experts and behaviorists say karate, taekwondo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu are powerful tools, teaching children to stay calm, keeping them fit, helping them focus and building their confidence.
Dr. Frank Prescott Dawson IV practices sports medicine at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center and studies martial arts to relieve stress.
He said the practice is organized around setting and achieving goals: Students rise through different levels as they learn more advanced skills and rely on their own abilities.
It's also a cardiovascular workout that is healthier for the body than high-impact activities that involve running and jumping, he said.
"The emotional and character building benefits are huge," Dawson said. "It doesn't have that team sport aspect — you're not able to blend into the background. You need to step up and be accountable for your technique. That can be really valuable in instilling discipline. And you're getting a great workout."
Bahar created the dojo in the 1200 block of N. Collington Avenue after the unrest of April 2015. At the time, he was active in the 300 Men March, the group he co-founded to spread the message to stop the killings, take personal responsibility and respect one another. The group spent hours after the death of Freddie Gray walking the streets and talking to schoolchildren.
Bahar said the 300 Men March has since dissolved. His focus now, he said, is on his COR ("Committed, Organized and Responsible") Health Institute. He runs the martial arts program out of the institute's headquarters.
As a young man, Bahar was involved in the drug trade and spent time in jail. He later earned a degree in accounting at Morgan State University and started a construction company.
He said the riots, arson and looting that followed Gray's death made clear to him that an intervention was needed with the city's youth. He said his time is best spent helping to address the psychological and physical health of the children.
He believes the martial arts training is working.
"A fire has been sparked in a lot of them," Bahar said. "That's why I know this is what has to happen in the city. This is the transformation work, not these one-day programs, not a town hall, not a conference. You have to nurture. You have to guide them. You have to make long-term commitments. The only thing that is going to turn Baltimore around is these youth."
The 7,000-square-feet facility he built features high ceilings, exposed brick walls and wood floors. He knocked out the walls separating the four rowhouses, lifted the joists on the basement floors and installed 39 windows.
The renovations took about a year. The facility opened over the summer.
A photo gallery leads to offices and a meditation room. A conditioning room downstairs has crisp white walls with a simple black stripe and the words "power," "victory," "focus" and "speed" stenciled inside the lines.
The dojo is upstairs. Bahar stained and installed wood trimming in typical Japanese style, left the trusses exposed and filled the space with few decorations. He added a statue of a horse, a pair of horns and African farming hats.
The boys come two or three times a week with escorts from the Club at Collington, an out-of-school program for neighborhood children.
On a recent day, the boys poured into the front door, skipping, dancing, waving their arms and strutting up the stairs. Bahar had a surprise for them: He had secured a $700 donation to buy them black drawstring pants for their practice sessions.
Before he handed them out, he pulled one of the youngest boys close to him, placed his hands on either side of the child's head, and tried to calm him.
"Look in my eyes," he instructed. "You are here to train." Some of the boys dropped to the floor to do push-ups.
The boys begin their training with arm strikes. They count out sets of 10.
"Let's go: No noise. Breathe. Focus," Bahar said. "One — make sure you got good form. Two — you shouldn't be looking around. This is not game time. Look in yourself. Three — this is where you have to focus. Tune out the outside. …"
Twelve-year-old Wayne Carter reached silently back to the boy behind him, his six-year-old cousin, and helped him sort out his right arm from his left arm to get in rhythm with the group.
Wayne, one of the natural leaders Bahar said he has identified within the group, said he wanted to learn martial arts for self-defense.
"It's fun and relaxing," the boy said.
Tenyah Dixon, head trainer at the UFC Gym in Crofton, said he hopes Bahar's efforts last. He ran a gym near Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore for about five years, but found getting enough funding to keep it going impossible.
We’re on the front line of a war right now
Vanessa WIlliams, program director for the Club at Collington
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He thinks involving young people in the practice does immeasurable good, especially for those who face chaos in their home life.
"All kids need it," Dixon said. "With martial arts, they feel like they're part of a group and they can kick butt. It's about confidence and learning how to approach people.
"It's hard out here. We need one in North Baltimore, East Baltimore, West Baltimore and South Baltimore."
Baltimore businessman J.P. Grant donated money to Bahar's program. He said he was impressed with Bahar's previous work in the city, especially with young children.
"We need new ideas," Grant said. "We need to try different things. If I am asking people to try new things and invest in new things — when there is no guarantee it's going to work — then I need to do the same thing."
Grant said he does not have a checklist to gauge Bahar's success, but he is monitoring his work.
"He is out there on the front line with young kids," Grant said. "I am not saying this is the only way, but it's one way to try to save our youth."
Vanessa Williams, program director for the Club at Collington, said the boys in the after-school program who participate in Bahar's training come back to the club to show off their new skills.
"I have heard everything from, 'Mr. Munir made us do 50 push-ups' to 'Miss Vanessa, look what I learned,' " Williams said. "You can see the difference in some of them. They're easier to handle. They're happy."
The partnership is a nod to the belief that raising children takes a village, Williams said. Instead of operating in solos, she said, the two programs are pulling their resources to give more opportunities to the kids as killings in the city continue at a record pace.
"We're on the front line of a war right now," she said. "You have to have the dedication that Munir has, that I have, to be able to sustain that front line. If we don't, we are going to keep losing young people.
"Everybody at this point needs to really wake up and step up and say, 'I've got to do something.' It's simple things. You have to realize this is going on and say, 'Here's a case of water for the boys after they finish karate.' Or, 'Here are some snacks for the club.' "