An unlikely group of Australian boxers have returned from a remarkable, week-long tour of war-ravaged Syria where they delivered a unique message of peace in unique fashion.
Profound messages of peace and hope are rarely associated with the combative sport of boxing, but for Dulwich Hill-based priest Father Dave Smith, it’s a constant narrative.
For years Father Dave has used boxing to help countless people though troubled times and he has extended his outreach all the way to the war-torn country of Syria.
He recently took eight Australian boxers to Syria to train with Syrian boxers in the ancient ruins of Palmyra.
“The experience in Palmyra in particular was very surreal,” Father Dave said.
Palmyra was seized by IS in May, 2015 and dozens of people including Syrian civilians were executed and parts of the ruins were destroyed.
The historic site was liberated in March, and Father Dave said it was highly symbolic for Syrian boxers to spar and train in a place that saw unimaginable atrocities just months ago.
“We're going into a place that's been associated with brutality and death recently and we're playing - we're playing sport with Syrian kids,” he said.
Syrian boxers have limited opportunities to improve in their chosen sport.
Being about to train with the Australian boxers was a rare treat and a diversion from the brutal reality confronting their homeland.
"We are very grateful for the help from the Australian delegation," Syrian boxer Ghadir Abaydi told Father Dave through a translator.
"We hope they will always honour us with their presence, so we can benefit from their experience and knowledge."
The trip was Father Dave’s fifth to Syria in four years, and he said the contrasts were typical of the country he has grown to love.
“I appreciate there's a backdrop there of violence and pain but the light shines in the darkness and things keep moving forward,” he said.