When Omer Yavuz snapped a photo of a young boy outside his gym on Jan. 2, he immediately realized it was a powerful, resonant image.
There was something harrowing in the way he stood still outside in the cold, staring in at the people working out at the Olympiat Sports Center in the southeast Turkish city of Adiyaman.
He wore flip-flops without socks in the winter, a ragged grey sweater and had hung a rickety shoeshine kit on his shoulder, indicators of the type of poverty that has become all too common in Turkey among Syrian refugees struggling to scratch out a living.
“It broke my heart and I wanted to share it with everyone,” Yavuz, a 28-year-old carpenter, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview.
What followed was a rare upbeat story out of the Middle East, an example of social media bringing people together for a good cause rather than dividing people over politics.
The gym’s owner, Mustafa Kucukkaya, was so moved he asked Yavuz for the original picture, and reposted it to his own Instagram, asking for the public’s help in finding the kid. He himself came from a poor family, he later told BuzzFeed News, and had to work in a bakery as a child.
“If anyone knows this brother, please get in touch with us,” he wrote. “We know that feeling very well. He will have free access to our gym club for a lifetime."
The picture went viral across Turkish social media, with news organizations and individuals posting the image as well as Olympiat’s promise to help him.
The Turkish website Inci Caps tweeted out the evocative image with the caption “write something about this picture” to its 3 million followers. Hundreds responded with sadness and despair. “He should be in school,” said one commentator.
Meanwhile, the hunt for the boy in the city of 220,000 was on. After two days, a member of Olympiat spotted him working a sidewalk and coaxed him to the gym. “The boy had no idea that the photo had gone viral,” Kucukkaya said in a phone interview. “He learnt all about it at the club.”
Despite language difficulties, the boy’s story trickled out. His name is Muhammad Hussein. He is 12 years old and a refugee from Deir Azzor, a city in Syria. His family members, who fled Syria five years ago, earn money by selling scrap paper and metal they collect from trash bins. According to Kucukkaya, who visited Hussein's home, the family lives in great poverty. He didn’t learn whether Hussein goes to school, but said he doubts it. BuzzFeed News sought to contact Hussein, but neither he nor his family have a phone.
He was super psyched to be getting a gym membership — that usually costs $225 a year — for free.
”He was such a shy kid,” said Mahir Alan, a photojournalist who took pictures of the boy for the Dogan News Agency. “He was so surprised, and he didn’t expect anything like that. He said that he was always curious about gyms.”
Kucukkaya described him as “a lovable kid who knows how to have fun in difficult circumstances.”
In just a week, Kucukayya said Hussein has already lost weight. The boy is sticking to a special adolescent-friendly regiment heavy on cardio and light on weights. Hussein told Alan he was grateful for the chance to get in shape. "I was looking at the people exercising,” he was quoted as saying in an interview with the Dogan News Agency. “The sports club is a beautiful place.”
Once Alan’s photos of Hussein working out in snazzy new gym clothes hit the internet, the rags-to-fitness story took on a life of its own, spreading beyond Turkey to a global audience. A BuzzFeed News correspondent’s tweet summarizing Hussein’s tale was retweeted more than 15,000 times and attracted over 40,000 likes.
Kucukkaya said he’s been inundated with calls from strangers seeking to help Hussein’s family.
“Some rich businessmen called,” he said. “A rich businesswoman from Ankara called and said she will send a package to his house. Even a person from Qatar called.”
Borzou Daragahi is a Middle East correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Istanbul.
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