The dogs are way too friendly for their names. Tyson and Evander—two Havanese that jump all over me as soon as I’m through the door—are the first hint at how much boxing infuses every aspect of the Kamal household. Ibrahim and Miranda Kamal’s home is decorated with boxing posters of themselves; the couple met at a boxing gym, and was wed in a boxing ring. He is a professional boxer, she is his manager, and together they run MJKO, a non-profit through which they train at-risk youth in the sport that has shaped their lives.
Ibrahim “Firearm” Kamal started boxing young, when his father’s work brought the Kamal family to Libya. After being bullied by a classmate, four-year-old Ibrahim went to his father—a gifted athlete in his own right—for advice. The senior Kamal taught his son some boxing basics, and when the bully returned, Ibrahim was ready for him; “It was my very first unofficial boxing fight.” At the time, boxing was outlawed in Libya, and it wasn’t until the family moved back to Canada years later that Ibrahim would have the opportunity to be formally trained in the sport. His parents signed the preteen up at the Scarborough Boxing Academy. By age thirteen he had claimed his first provincial championship, and by sixteen he had qualified for the national team.
As an amateur, Ibrahim would be an eight-time national champion lightweight, and travel the world representing Canada. He competed in the Commonwealth and Pan Am Games, but since childhood, his ultimate goal had been to represent Canada at the Olympics. When Ibrahim failed to make the 2008 Canadian Olympic team, it was a bitter disappointment, but the intervening years have given him a different perspective. Taking his wife’s hand, he says, “looking at it now, it’s kind of the best thing to happen to me. Had I gone to the Olympics, we wouldn’t have met, and we wouldn’t be here today. I’d be—I have no idea, probably in a crappy contract.”
Miranda spent her youth competing in athletics as well, but her sport of choice was table tennis. At the Canada Games, she was exposed to boxing for the first time. “As a kid, I thought boxing was the most elite sport. I don’t think that at that time there even were women in boxing.” It would not be until the age of 27, while working as a mortgage broker at CIBC, that Miranda would finally start training as a boxer. She immediately fell in love with the sport, hitting the boxing gym six days a week. One of her clients at the bank heard about her new endeavor, and asked to interview her for a documentary he was filming about female fighters. When asked why she got into boxing, Miranda opened up for the first time about a sexual assault she’d been keeping secret since she was sixteen. “Boxing is what healed me. I never got into boxing to hurt anyone. I just wanted to feel safe.” The film crew followed her as she trained for her first fight—the first all-female competition in Toronto.
In 2008, the intense training prescribed by her coach took its toll on Miranda, and she suffered a serious spine injury. Her range of motion was severely restricted, and she was in constant pain; boxing was out of the question. But fortuitously, Miranda would be presented with an opportunity to stay connected to the sport. She had been volunteering for years with Youth Assisting Youth, a non-profit that matches teen and twenty-something mentors with at-risk children. The organization wanted to start a boxing club for its young charges, and Miranda volunteered to run the project.
It was around this time that Miranda and Ibrahim started dating. Their relationship was a support to them both, helping her through the injury and him through his recent Olympic disappointment and subsequent decision to go pro. Eventually Miranda would become his manager. She says, “When he started fighting professionally and included me, it helped me deal with my injury. Even though he was upset about not making the Olympics, boxing was still what he’s done since he was eleven. I was drawn to him because I knew what it took to be the best.”
More than a year after her injury, Miranda finally had spinal surgery. In an unplanned moment, she insisted on speaking to the surgeon before she was put under, telling him, “look, I’m an athlete. I’m a boxer. Whatever you have to do, you have to fix me. If you fix me, I’m going to quit my job, and I’m going to devote my whole life to sharing this sport that I love with other people.” After a successful surgery, she quit her job at CIBC, and founded MJKO, Mentoring Junior Kids Organization.
Ibrahim joined the team as Program Facilitator, and the two run non-contact boxing lessons every Saturday at the Harbourfront Centre, free of charge, for kids ages 6-18. During the school year, MJKO partners with Ryerson Community School and Parkdale Public School as well, offering weekly lessons to their students on campus. Anyone who would like to attend the Saturday sessions is welcome, and past trainees have included children with special needs and autism; at-risk youth are often referred by GTA agencies. Miranda says, “A lot of our kids have no parental support, so they have no way to get there… And a lot of kids come from divorced homes, and one parent won’t bring them. And, we have kids coming from Kipling and Shepherd, Albion and Finch—far.” When the kids have no way of making it to the lesson, Miranda and Ibrahim will drive them to and fro themselves.
The lessons go beyond boxing basics—students are taught about nutrition and community leadership, and the MJKO team makes it clear that preparation and training can change lives outside the boxing gym as well. Ibrahim says, “we’re basically instilling the characteristics and traits from boxing, from sport. They are so transferable to everything else in life: commitment, dedication, discipline. Those are the same things you require in every other avenue.” The importance of punctuality is stressed, and the students are offered workshops on resume writing and interview skills. Miranda says, “The majority of our kids probably will not go to university. They may go to college. But we want to help them have skills so they can get jobs.”
MJKO is also seeks to bring about change in the communities it services, by partnering with the Toronto Police. “Part of our mandate,” Miranda says, “is to help train police officers and community members to work together in an inclusive environment.” Plainclothes police officers from the 14 Division, which stretches from Dupont Street down to the Lakeshore, and from Spadina to Dufferin Street, are present at every session MJKO runs. But the officers are not there to police; they participate in the program, studying boxing alongside the kids—in some cases, even alongside kids they have previously arrested. Having the two groups work together as peers has changed the dynamics between them. Surveys MJKO distributes to the kids before and after the programs run show that their attitudes toward the authority figures are changing. And the police officers’ assumptions about “good” and “bad” kids are challenged as well; as Miranda says, “it breaks down a lot of barriers… they see that they’re just kids.”
The program has faced its share of challenges. At Parkdale, many of the students trained two years ago were Roma refugees. After the kids grew attached to their coaches over 40 weeks, the majority of them were suddenly deported. “We thought we were going to have this big year-end party to celebrate the success of the program. By our last class we had six kids left.” MJKO is often the only stable element in otherwise tumultuous young lives. For this reason, Miranda and Ibrahim are keen to secure a more permanent home out of which to run their programming. While they are grateful to the Harbourfront Centre, being based there means that some weeks—such as the one I met them—their Saturday course is cancelled because another event is booked in their usual space. MJKO is currently fundraising and hoping to lease a space in Parkdale; donations are welcome and can be made at www.mjko.ca.
But the program has produced many success stories, and the couple beam with pride as they tell me of the students who eventually coach and lead their very own session, or the previously shy student who grew into his police-assigned nickname, Lionheart. They tell me of a hearing-impaired student, now 20, who had trained with MJKO and gave them what Miranda calls “the best Christmas present.” “She sent us a letter that said, ‘When I came to MJKO, I was in a serious depression. I hated being deaf, I hated my life. And then I came, and for the first time in my life, I felt good about myself. I love you guys, I love the program, and I love boxing.’”
WORDS: RONIT RUBINSTEIN
PHOTOS: ANDRIJA DIMITRIJEVIC
MUA: SARA FRATIA
HAIR: NATALIE SHEMUEL
STYLING: ROBIN CARELESS & SARAH CHANG
LOCATION: COMBAT ASYLUM INC.
KIDS: ALAN JOEL AMES H., ANYA KARIR, AVANI KARIR, CALVIN SATOSKAR, CASSIDY FATIMA RAROSO, CHARLOTTE STEEN, JIMMY ZHANG, KIARA SATOSKAR & MICHAEL QUACH