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Skateboarding aims to mend a fragmented Palestine

By Zuzana Brezinová - August 20, 2015
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Nablus] [Jenin] [Ramallah]


A fifteen-minute walk from Ramallah’s bustling city centre is what appears to be an ordinary playground where local school kids run around and play football. Then, a SkatePAL volunteer arrives holding the magic key to a tiny shed full of skateboards.


SkatePAL is a UK-based charity founded in 2012 by an Edinburgh University graduate Charlie Davis. The organisation aims to establish a sustainable skateboarding scene in Palestine.


Skateboarding may seem an unlikely sport in Palestine. But those involved in the sport say it is a way to escape “real-life worries” and “free their minds” in a country where children are often forced to cut their childhood short and contribute to their family’s income by working long hours for minimum pay.


In 2010, child labour in the Occupied Territories reached 3.7 percent of all children aged between 10 and 17, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Palestinian children are also exploited by Israeli settlers and hired illegally as a cheap labour for construction work in the settlements.


“Palestinian youth and adolescence are missing the positive mentality that young people in other places have. Skateboarding gives them this positive vibe, it frees their spirits” said Maen, 22, a Palestinian-American volunteer with SkatePAL.


Skateboarding has been Maen’s passion for over a decade and when he returned to Palestine to visit his family in 2014 after a ten-year gap, he brought his skateboard with him for an “occasional after-school ride,” he said.


During his afternoon rides around Birzeit near Ramallah, Maen met Palestinians who were waiting for him after school and followed him until he lent them his skateboard and taught them new tricks.


Maen told Palestine Monitor he had no idea these unexpected encounters would define his next future in Palestine and direct him to SkatePAL.


“The kids were always talking about this guy, Charlie, who would come every summer and teach them skateboarding,” Maen said. “I was wondering who Charlie was, and that is how I discovered SkatePAL and decided to volunteer with them this year.”


SkatePAL started in 2012 as a small voluntary project hoping to spread skateboarding across throughout Palestine. That year, Charlie, SkatePAL’s founder, decided to leave his job as an English teacher in Tunisia and return to Zebabdeh, a small city near Jenin, where the project began.


“I simply thought that the skate park was a tangible project, because I saw a similar initiative work out in Afghanistan,” said Charlie. “So I took my brother and a few volunteers and we built the park in Zebabdeh, relying mostly on donations from family and friends.”


Three years later, SkatePAL crew drafted plans for their third skate park near Nablus and they registered immense interest from volunteers worldwide who applied to help with the construction. Twenty-eight volunteers are now finishing their fundraising and will head to the West Bank in September.


Fundraising is crucial to SkatePAL activities and as Davis explained, each volunteer has a set task to raise £750, all of which goes to buying construction materials and skateboards. In return, volunteers can use local accommodation free of charge and ask for reimbursement of their travel expenses at the end, although only a few have managed to so far.


SkatePAL projects are also limited by the availability of the construction materials in the West Bank, which are subject to Israel’s often-changing border policies. This makes SkatePAL’s future in the region uncertain until a sustainable local alternative to building materials is found.


Restrictions on import of construction material and volatile border-situation between the Territories and Israel has already discouraged SkatePAL from expanding to Gaza, despite evidence of the local population’s interest in skateboarding.


“It would be a shame to grow someone’s passion and then when his or her skateboard actually breaks, and they would not be able to get a new one, because of the Israeli border closure or import restrictions on a particular type of material,” said Davis.


Getting hold of a high-quality building material for skateparks is also a problem in the West Bank, even though the measures targeting the movement of goods are less restrictive than in the case of Gaza.


“This mini pipe,” said Maen pointing to a U-shaped cracked wooden desk in Ramallah’s only skate park, “was absolutely damaged when I arrived and we needed to fix it to start classes. The problem was that there was no wood suitable for skateboarding in the West Bank and so the surface has already wobbled because of the heat.”


In Ramallah, the problem goes beyond the inaccessibility of material and lack of financial resources. According to Davis, “a lot of Palestinian skaters are upper-class high school kids who will leave the country the moment they graduate. Therefore, they are not that interested in sustaining skateboarding in Palestine and see it as a just free-time fun.”


The sustainability of skateboarding and developing commitment of locals is what SkatePAL has been aiming for in Palestine since its inception. The Nablus project appears to be the move in the right direction, Davis told Palestine Monitor.


“We finally secured a reliable partner in a local NGO, the Palestinian House of Friendship, and the Nablus Council, who really seem to care. But, it will take years to make skateboarding sustainable in the region and push it to the national level,” Davis said.


The key, according to Davis, is to transfer the know-how. “Now, Palestinians need us, because they don’t know how to build a skate park. They do not have the skills, nor the material they need,” he said.


Davis remains optimistic for the future of skateboarding in the region. “When I first arrived to Palestine in 2006, there was fighting and shooting every day. Now, the West Bank is gradually recovering from the aftermath of the Second Intifada. Its economic performance is improving and most importantly, interest in skateboarding is thriving,” he said.


A company in Bethlehem started producing their own “bucket boards,” which are basically skateboards produced out of “garbage” that is pressured into a board. This company has the potential to become the base for Palestine’s recent skateboarding industry, but as Davis explained, they need to convince Palestinians to start buying their own skateboards, “because only then they learn the real value of skateboarding and invest more than just a superficial interest in it.”


Investing symbolic money into using the skate park’s facilities as well as buying own skateboards will not only help the project run in the long-term, but it will also cultivate local commitment to and passion for skateboarding.


For many, skateboarding is just an ordinary sport, but to SkatePAL it is the best way to forge community bonds and overcome the differences fragmenting Palestinian society.


“When we started in Zebabdeh, there were skirmishes between local Christian and Muslim kids. They would not talk to each other and sometimes would even get a bit aggressive. Then the classes kicked in and they started coming to the skate park together, forgetting their differences.


“This shows that people can work together regardless of their background. Through skateboarding, you break down the barriers between different groups and beliefs. It is a non-hierarchical and inclusive sport,” concluded Charlie. And this is exactly what Palestine needs right now.


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