When Omer Yavuz snapped a photo of a shoeshine boy outside a gym 2 weeks ago, he immediately realized it was a powerful image and shared it on social media.
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 city of Adiyaman in Turkey.
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 survive.
What followed was an example of social media bringing people together for a good cause.
The gym’s owner, Mustafa Kucukkaya (himself coming from a poor family), was so moved he asked Yavuz for the original picture, and reposted it to his Instagram, asking people to help in finding the kid.
“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 hunt for the boy in the city of 220,000 was on. After 2 days, a member of Olympiat spotted him working a sidewalk and coaxed him to the gym. 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 was so happy to be getting the $225 a year gym membership 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.”
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.”