Amid continual civil war in neighboring Syria and threat of ISIS, the nation of Jordan has seen an influx of refugees fearing for their safety. Anywhere between 600,000 and 1.4 million refugees from Syria and Iraq have sought refuge in the neighboring country.
The Zaatari refugee camp is Jordan’s largest refugee camp and is located just outside the capital of Amman. Nearly 82,000 refugees live in the camp and approximately half of the inhabitants are under 18 years old.
When one thinks of poverty and refugee aid, skateboarding is certainly not the first relief measure that comes to mind. But in December 2014, Jordan’s first skate park was opened in the center of the nation’s capital.
“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,” says Philadelphia Skateboards founder Mohammed Zakaria.
The park, better known as “7Hills” was funded by a crowd sourcing campaign initiated by Zakaria and Make Life Skate Life, an international nonprofit organization that seeks to encourage skateboarding to underserved, poverty stricken children. The $25,000 required to build the park was gathered in a matter of days and was constructed using an international volunteer workforce in less than three weeks.
With a self proclaimed mission of aiding the “under-served refugee youth in Jordan,” the park encourages and provides an outlet for youth refugees in Jordan and aspiring Arab artists to express themselves and share their ideas. Awareness & Prevention Through Art (AptArt) is another organization that has helped support the park and ostensibly, the refugee youth culture that the park gathers.
AptArt hosts workshops on creating large scale public art for disadvantaged youth and refugees. The subject matter of the artwork focuses on healing and rehabilitation from regional trauma and conflict. The motivation for these efforts is to unite the youth affected by expressing and sharing common experiences.
The Collateral Repair Project (CPR) is a nonprofit that provides an additional outlet of rehabilitation for refugees. CPR sponsors and hosts weekly skateboard lessons for displaced youth interested in learning. They also work to provide free skateboards and safety equipment to anyone that wishes to learn, but do not have money to purchase their own.
The fear of playing outside and being robbed of a normal childhood are tragic side effects of more conventional signs of poverty. What the 7Hills skatepark has done is provide a place for refugee children and young adults to forget their fears and regain a sense of normalcy by sparking an interest in a growing communal activity.
“In Syria, I couldn’t go out and play because of the war, but in Amman I can enjoy my time, stay out late and make new friends at the skatepark,” says Ahmed Rayen, a 9 year old skateboard enthusiast.
Zakaria first began skating the streets of Amman in 2002, before skateboarding had become a commonly acceptable pastime in the country. He recalls early on receiving societal backlash and consternation. Not to be discouraged, Zakaria founded Philadelphia Skateboards in 2009 which was the first and currently the only Arabic skateboard company. In an effort to popularize the sport in the Arab world and abroad, the company has supported local up and coming Arab graphic artists by using their designs on the skateboard decks.
“We wanted the decks to have graphics that represent us in the Arab world in a way. So we naturally couldn’t work with non-Arab artists,” says Zakaria.
These efforts have certainly inspired a wave of Arab skateboarders as the company now sells in multiple Arabic countries including, Egypt, Tunisia, UAE and Lebanon. European ex-patriot skateboarders living in the Middle East have even begun to take notice popularizing sales in Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Zakaria states that sales to Europe have begun to grow as increased publicity about Arab skating has sparked an international interest in the brand as well as the 7Hills skatepark and its charitable efforts towards refugee kids.
Zakaria and his company Philadelphia Skateboards have become synonymous with the evolving skate culture that is burgeoning in the Middle East and in Jordan in particular.
“Many of our skaters, and the new kids we hope to bring into the park, come from broken homes or refugee families. We want to give them a healthy, free, accessible resource to enjoy life. Creating a place where underserved refugee youth can have free access to skateboarding…It’s been tough, but it’s been great to see people pitching in from around the world.”
– Frasier Petersen