We all know how skateboarding makes us feel; stoked, uplifted, confident, happy ... empowered? I think so. There are many charities using skateboarding to these ends and I would like to introduce you to a recent addition: Free Movement Skateboarding, bringing all the above to the refugees in Athens. Co-founder, Ruby Mateja, tell's all ...
"Last October, I travelled to Palestine to volunteer for an incredible charity called SkatePal. They have been running skate projects in the West Bank for quite a few years now and recently built Rosa Skatepark just outside a town called Asira Al-Shamaliya. Volunteers travel there every month to run skateboarding sessions for the kids in the local community. It was here that I met Will Ascott - the other half of Free Movement Skateboarding - and we began to talk about the possibility of setting up our own similar project. There are so many places that would benefit from a project like SkatePal and, having seen first-hand the positive impact it has had on the whole community in Palestine, we felt inspired to spread this elsewhere.
Will travelled straight to Greece from Palestine, where he had taken up a position volunteering at the Khora Community Centre in Athens. Within a week of being there, I received a message from Will saying that this was the place we need to set up our project. There are 25,000 refugees currently living in camps and squats in Athens and a large percentage of these people are under eighteen. 'There's so many kids here' he told me; 'their basic needs are mostly being met but they need a fun outlet to channel their energies into'.
From here we began to formulate our project, Free Movement Skateboarding, and tailor it to the specific situation in Athens. Will was able to start forming relationships with the refugee population, the local skate scene and other charity projects already running in Athens; all of which showed great support for our project. Back in the UK, we were lucky enough to set up a meeting with the charity Help Refugees, who are at the forefront of supplying emergency aid, shelter and education to those seeking asylum in numerous countries throughout Europe. We presented Free Movement Skateboarding to them and they enthusiastically offered to support us in launching our project out in Athens.
Skateboarding ties together a perfect mix of managed risk and therapeutic exercise. It takes a lot of concentration so whilst you are doing it you tend to just be thinking of the present moment. It doesn't allow much room for your mind to wander. It is a non-fail activity where participation by all is encouraged and everyone supports each other; no matter their age, ability or gender. The gender gap within Western skateboarding has been rapidly decreasing over the last few years and it continues to be seen much less as a male-dominated activity - which is amazing - but it still has some way to come. What is so incredible about projects like SkatePal is that where skateboarding has been introduced into these cultures as a nascent activity, it does not carry that stigma of it ever having been a male-dominated sport. The sessions we ran in Palestine were completely varied, sometimes with more girls skating than boys. To see the young girls so fearless and empowered whilst skating was truly wonderful; especially in cultures where the women generally take on a very traditional role. Things are moving forward and skateboarding seems to be at the forefront of this positive transition.
We will promote gender-equality in all of our sessions in Athens. We will also keep them open to Greek children as well as the refugees - who mostly come from Syria and Afghanistan - in order to aid the integration of the refugee children into Greek society. The bonds made whilst skating can naturally overcome any boundaries which might exist between them. We aim to have mainly Greek people teaching the skateboarding sessions and, as a long term plan, we wish to hand the day-to-day running of the project over to them. This way, we can create a refugee skate scene that is fully integrated in the existing Greek one.
We are extremely pleased with the support Free Movement Skateboarding has gathered so far. We have had 50 decks donated along with lots of other skate equipment and safety gear. With the other funds that we have raised we have managed to complete these decks into full set-ups. I want to say a massive thank you to Lariatt Skate Shop in St. Albans for helping us to make this happen."
Ruby and Will left the UK at the beginning of the month and so began their journey to Athens - with a fully packed van! Stopping at various refugee camps and communities throughout France and Italy en route, they ran some one-off skate sessions and donated some boards so that the kids there can continue to skate; with a hope that this would sow the seed for future projects in these places too. Finally arriving in Athens, Ruby and Will set to work on designing and building wooden ramps which they will transport around different camps so that maximum participation can be encouraged.
If you would like to donate, please go to their MyDonate page.
Words and pictures by: Ruby Mateja