Recreation: Skateboarding for peace in Jordan and Afghanistan

Published March 22, 2015
Friends, families and enthusiasts flock to 7Hills to watch a skating competition
Friends, families and enthusiasts flock to 7Hills to watch a skating competition

In downtown Amman, young Iraqi and Syrian refugees excitedly gather as the final touches are put on Jordan’s first ever skate park, 7Hills.

“We’ve always wanted a skate park and always needed one because skating in the streets here isn’t easy,” says the project cofounder, Mohammed Zakaria.

“It’s the place that gets everyone together and the skateboarding scene in Jordan is like a family — we’re all brothers and sisters and 7Hills will be a home for that family.”

For refugees in Amman and children in ‘war weary’ Afghanistan skateboarding provides healthy diversion

The 28-year-old Palestinian teamed up with German skater Arne Hillerns, who sees 7Hills as “a community for people from different backgrounds to skate,” along with Jon Chaconas, an engineer from the US, to get the grassroots project underway.

Through donations and an online crowdfunding campaign, the team raised a total of $25,000 to build the park, with help from the local community and a group of international volunteers.

While many children can’t afford skateboards, the 7Hills project provides free equipment and lessons along with full access to the park.

Jordan has been hit hard in the last four years since the neighbouring Syrian conflict intensified, bringing about 1 million refugees to the country.

Graffiti as self-expression
Graffiti as self-expression

With 55 per cent of the almost 84,000 refugees in the country’s biggest refugee camp, Za’atari, being under the age of 18, harsh living conditions have left many young people with limited opportunities.

Tensions also continue to rise in the kingdom following the brutal killing of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh by Daesh in January.

“The circumstances in the Middle East affect us in a way that it pushes us even more to do the skate park in terms of the situation around us being messed up right now,” Zakaria says. “There are a lot of youth and families and refugees leaving their homes and coming into Jordan because it’s a safe place at the moment.

“We will be looking to work with NGOs to bring those refugees over to 7Hills in the foreseeable future so they can learn how to skate and find a bit of happiness,” he adds.

Zakaria, who also manufactures skate products, created the Middle East’s first skateboard brand, Philadelphia Skateboards, inspired by mixing culture from the West with “an Arabic feel”.

Hanifa — a talented Afghan skater
Hanifa — a talented Afghan skater

As the passion for skateboarding in the Middle East grows, 7Hills has given youth from different backgrounds the opportunity to find a positive outlet as well as a distraction from tough times.

On a sunny Friday following afternoon prayers, excited people from different age groups flock to 7Hills for the park’s first skateboarding competition where prizes have been donated by the organisers.

Wearing a pair of sparkling silver Vans and shyly clutching a green skateboard, 17-year-old Razan Qaissi is keen to participate in the competition.

“I don’t mind skating among all of these boys. I feel very comfortable, she says. “Seeing all the kids rolling with their skateboards — it’s amazing.”

For Yazan Sharaf, 14, the skate park is an opportunity to make new friends and to become fit.

“I want to come to 7Hills more and get better and better at skateboarding,” says the Jordanian teenager. “Being here brings me a lot of joy.”

Children, especially girls look forward to skateboarding in a safe environment
Children, especially girls look forward to skateboarding in a safe environment

Community spaces for children in Jordan are rare and 7Hills has given young people the chance to enjoy the outdoors in a safe environment.

In Afghanistan, where 64pc of the population is under 24, decades of conflict have taken a toll on the country’s youth, especially girls.

A combination of ongoing battles between government troops and the Taliban along with poverty and conservative attitudes, have all restricted girls from obtaining an education or having a decent prospect outside of marriage.

It was only a few years ago when Afghanistan was voted the most dangerous country in the world for women, according to a Thomson Reuters poll.

Negative statistics continue to tarnish the country’s image, yet an unconventional sport like skateboarding has given many girls an optimistic future.

When Oliver Percovich founded Skateistan in the heart of Kabul seven years ago, little did he know that almost half of the students at the organisation would be girls.

“Skateboarding is still new and unique in Afghanistan and it’s not stereotyped yet as a male dominated sport,” the Australian says. “So it’s really important that girls have an equal opportunity to play. That’s why it works so well.”

And it’s not just skateboarding that the unique non-profit organisation offers to young people. Free access to education and leadership training is provided for children to have a better future.

Percovich had been working as a researcher in Afghanistan when he came up with the idea of starting Skateistan.

“When I first started skating the streets of Kabul in 2007, kids and parents saw the skateboard as a toy, but increasingly it’s being recognised as a sport,” the 40-year-old says.

Skateistan has helped hundreds of children — many of whom were street vendors, get off the streets and be in a secure environment. Some of the pupils even went on to become skateboarding teachers themselves.

“Skateboarding gives kids confidence, which they can take to other parts of their life, this is especially important for Afghan girls who have very few opportunities for sports.”

One such girl is 16-year-old Hanifa who is now one of Afghanistan’s most talented skaters. The teen was selling tea on the streets of Kabul when she first tried skateboarding in 2010. Now, Hanifa is one of Skateistan’s most inspirational teachers.

Because skateboarding is still relatively new to Afghanistan, Percovich ensures the NGO adheres to the local culture. Classes for boys and girls happen on different days, while safe transport is arranged for students to and from the site in Kabul.

The team also ensures that families of students are regularly consulted through a dedicated support officer.

It hasn’t been an easy journey though. The charity lost members in September 2012 when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a NATO base, killing four Skateistan students including Khorshid, 14, who was deemed a role model by the team for her skateboarding skills.

“The Skateistan students who were lost — Khorshid, Parwana, Eeza and Nawab — will never be forgotten by their teachers, students, co-workers, friends or family,” Percovich reflects. “They happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and four of them were tragically killed.”

Skateistan has helped Afghanistan’s youth not only get off the streets, but learn life skills which will help them have a secure future in the war-torn country.

“Children, especially girls, now have something to look forward to each week in a safe environment and community — something that’s very rare in a place like Afghanistan.”

— Photographs provided by Samantha Robinson and Skateistan

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 22nd, 2015

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