An NGO in Jordan is using skateboarding to bring refugee communities together. Skateboarding, explains Belgian-born Kas Wauters, the programme manager of the 7Hills skatepark in Amman, helps to break down cultural and ethnic barriers.
"Once you share a common interest or a common passion," he tells me, "all the barriers, or all the differences, fade away. Skateboarding is quite intense, and requires a mental battle and physical balance in every individual, so it's really easy to forget everything around you."
The skate park was built in 2014 by a coalition of local skaters, Philadelphia skateboards, the municipality of Amman and the German-based Make Life Skate Life. The aim is to encourage skateboarding in Amman and provide a space where refugee and local communities can interact.
The NGO hosts a range of classes and workshops with local children every week, including loaner sessions where attendees can borrow a skateboard; partnership classes in conjunction with other local NGOs; and a youth leadership programme that trains older children to become skateboarding instructors.
Under the programme, children can earn a free skateboard from the 7Hills NGO incrementally, says Wauters. "For specific numbers of classes that they help with in the park, they can get parts of their own skateboard. For example, they help with ten classes and they can get wheels, trucks or a board."
The rewards scheme, he points out, works really well now with all the kids wanting to be part of the youth leadership programme because they want a free skateboard. The programme, however, goes further, and teaches children how to take care of the community: "They learn about the space, they get responsibilities, they take ownership and at the same time they stay motivated to skate themselves."
This scheme has been highly successful in Amman. "Bad ass kids from the neighbourhood who were, at the beginning, trying to trash the space and steal skateboards… have got into our youth leadership programme," Wauters says with understandable pride. "Now, these boys are taking care of the skateboards and making sure no boards are getting stolen. They are also making sure the park is kept clean."
However, the 7Hills programme doesn't just target locals. Much of the NGO's focus has been on encouraging refugee communities, many of whom are living in the city of Amman itself, not camps, to claim the space as their own. The Sudanese refugee community has been particularly successful with this. According to Wauters, they were having a "hard time" before 7Hills got involved.
"Before 7Hills, the Sudanese had no space to go to in Amman. They were staying at home in the city because they didn't feel safe in public and the kids weren't going to school." When 7Hills noticed that the community was being marginalised, Wauters and other members of the NGO's team in partnership with Sawiyan came up with the idea of a Sudanese-only skate class once a week. It started on a Saturday with just one mother and a handful of Sudanese refugee children, but is now one of 7Hills's biggest programmes.
"The whole Sudanese community gets together. They finally found a space where they feel welcome… and they really claim the space, which is nice… they mostly just hang out, take tea together, or have picnics. They have recently started hosting a micro market, selling beanies and other items they make themselves."
Others being helped by 7Hills include those refugee groups which are seen to be the most in need, including Somalis, Yemenis, Syrians and Palestinians living in and around Amman. The NGO hosts a weekly session for children living in Gaza (Jerash) Camp, for example. Funds are used to transport groups of youngsters living in the camp to visit the 7Hills Skate Park.
"We bring a bus full of children from the Gaza Camp to the skate park every week in a joint project with the settlement's community centre", Wauters explains. "And we always ask our partners, like the community centre in Gaza Camp, to bring 50 per cent girls and 50 per cent boys to the park."
The gender split policy is clearly a point of pride for Wauters, who sees it as an opportunity to break cultural taboos by encouraging girls to participate in sports. Many of the girls, he notes, had never done any sport in a public space and had often been discouraged from playing sports before attending classes at 7Hills. Why? "Skateboarding is relatively unknown and conservative parents don't see it as a real sport. Their daughters may not be allowed to play football because it's a male dominated sport… but when it comes to skateboarding, the parents encourage them to play".
The 7Hills skate park also teaches children important life skills. Wauters believes that skateboarding teaches people how to handle failure, for example. "Skateboarding entails more failure than success initially. To land a trick, you have to fall at least 100 times at first, so it teaches children that it's acceptable for people to fail and fail again, and then succeed."
Skateboarding NGO 7Hills, says Wauters, is planning to expand the uses of the park in the next few years, by adding an area for breakdancing as well as chess and table-tennis facilities. It hopes to encourage more locals, along with refugee communities, to engage and feel welcome in the space. "There's a huge need for places like 7Hills. We want the park to be a space where everyone who lives in the city can come together and have fun."