how a charity in athens is using skateboarding to help refugees
Free Movement Skateboarding is offering empowerment and freedom for kids stuck in Greek refugee camps.
In a refugee camp a short drive from the centre of Athens, about 20 kids with skateboards are mad with excitement. A large white marquee with ripped sides and plywood floor is filled with shouting in numerous languages, laughter, loud bangs and all other sounds of barely controllable enjoyment. The camp is a concrete expanse with rows of prefabricated housing, surrounded by walls over which you can see the treetops and mountains in the distance. As the daylight fades, the mountains turn pale purple and a projector comes on. Among ambient hum of the camp there are sounds familiar to bored teenagers worldwide: the slams and thrusts of skateboard decks, the rhythmic tick of small wheels. The sounds signify the great unifying power of skateboarding in action here, very far from suburban driveways where it emerged as a global movement.
The skate session in the camp is the initiative of Free Movement Skateboarding, founded by Will Ascott and Ruby Mateja. Afterwards they pick up bags of protective pads and helmets, and load portable half-pipes and kickers in a battered white van. Skateboards, which they distribute to kids, teenagers and young adults at 6 sessions a week, are mostly donated by skaters across the UK. The boards have seen a lot of dedicated use, and they're worn and scratched, which doesn't stop kids from practicing their first ollies, even in such inappropriate footwear as sandals. Most of them came to Athens with their families to escape war and destruction in Syria, Afghanistan and Iran. They don't know much about skateboarding. They don't care about Supreme drops and they've never seen Kids or Spike Jonze's Video Days. What they know is that it's fun, and it connects people regardless of background, so they keep coming back for more.
Today skateboarding is a significant part of contemporary culture, its imagery and non-conformist spirit inspiring, engaging and enthralling generations across the world since the 70s. But it's always had a special place anywhere you need to do something to pass the time that's empowering, inclusive and free. Today skate charities, like Skateistan, Skate for Change, SkatePal in Palestine and Amigo Skate in Cuba take this ethos to the places where it's needed the most.
"I've always loved the explorative nature of skateboarding, going to places and meeting new people," says Will, who found his first skateboard outside his house in the small town of St Albans at the age of six. "When we were growing up, we formed a crew along a train line north of London. It was a way of escaping from our very insular middle class little bubble of a town, which is just so distant from the real world. I think, loosely, my political values are rooted in the experience of skating and meeting people of very different backgrounds, and being immediately on the same social level."
"Most of them came to Athens with their families to escape war and destruction in Syria, Afghanistan and Iran. They don't know much about skateboarding. They don't care about Supreme drops and they've never seen Kids or Spike Jonze's Video Days. What they know is that it's fun, and it connects people regardless of background, so they keep coming back for more."
Driven by his passion for skateboarding and a desire to use it to make a difference, Will volunteered at SkatePal in Palestine where he met a fellow skater Ruby Mateja, and they decided to join forces and start a charity project of their own. "I've just always loved the fear factor of skateboarding, I love freaking myself out and overcoming that, it makes me feel powerful. It is for those same reasons that I came back to it in my twenties: as soon as I jumped back on a board I remembered the exhilaration I used to feel as a child," Ruby says. "But it wasn't until I went to Palestine to volunteer for SkatePal that I saw the truly amazing impact skateboarding can have on people's lives, and in fact on entire communities. The skatepark that was built by SkatePal in a beautiful mountainous landscape near Nablus has provided a safe place for the locals, it gets kids off the streets, and empowers girls and women."
Since 2015, more than a million refugees have entered Europe, the majority of them through Greece and Italy. The number of documented refugees waiting for their asylum approval in Greece is just over 60,000. There are several refugee camps in Athens, alongside squats in various repurposed buildings, including hotels. Free Movement Skateboarding is funded by Help Refugees charity, and they run skate sessions not only in the camps but also in collaboration with refugee community centre Khora and youth service Velos. Apart from Will and Ruby, the team includes Oisin Fogarty Graveson, a devoted skater who is responsible for communications. Free Movement Skateboarding also currently employs a local Athenian skateboarder to help them teach, and they are hoping to enlist more in the future. Together with occasional help from skaters from places as diverse as Morocco and Poland, they've created a hopeful union sharing the belief that a deck and four wheels can truly change someone's life.
"I believe skateboarding has great benefits for mental health. There is definitely an element of focus and mental calm, a feeling of freedom. But also for the kids we teach it's an hour of messing around, a possibility to switch off and just skate," says Will.
"Skateboarding can have an incredible impact in empowering girls and women", Ruby adds. "A lot of the girls we teach are from very traditional cultures, where women are expected to exclude themselves from more and more physical activity as they progress further into their teens. Luckily skateboarding has an advantage here because it is often an unknown thing within these cultures. So you can introduce it from the onset as a gender-neutral activity that anyone of any age can take part in. In our sessions girls and boys all skate together, supporting and giving each other tips. Some personal highlights have been seeing tiny girls ripping around and teaching older boys how to skate. Seeing them be so fearless and confident is so great."
Still suffering heavily from the financial crisis, Athens has become an unexpectedly great place for skateboarding. Cracked sidewalks are littered with fallen oranges, but "there's marble architecture everywhere, and very high tolerance for street carnage", as Will puts it. Latraac, a skate bowl, garden and cafe, is another example of how skateboarding can transform the city. Built by architecture Zachos Varfis in a gritty neighbourhood of Keramikos, it attracts a mixed crowd of skaters and creative youth, occasionally hosting Free Movement Skateboarding sessions. While they continue to drive around the city with the makeshift ramps, the plans for the team are to raise funds to build their own skatepark and, next Spring, to start releasing boards in collaboration with artists.
"You're literally never alone if you've got a skateboard. You can go anywhere in the world and you find skateboarders, and as soon as you walk up to them you're their friend instantly."
In the end, the impact of what they do goes beyond the city, and beyond any borders. "You're literally never alone if you've got a skateboard. You can go anywhere in the world and you find skateboarders, and as soon as you walk up to them you're their friend instantly. That's another reason why it's so good to give that skill and that culture to refugees, because they can go anywhere and they'll find friends in other skateboarders," Oisin says.
"I can't think of a more welcoming group of people," Will agrees. "Entering a foreign city, it's easy to feel isolated and confused, but if you have someone to skate with you'll be all right."
Please donate here to keep Free Movement Skateboarding going.