The Gaza Strip holds one of the youngest populations on Earth, but with overcrowded schools, an incredibly high unemployment rate and a crumbling infrastructure, there are very few leisure opportunities for its Palestinian youth.
That is why Skate Jam, an international organisation led by two Hackney residents, is crossing into the territory this month to build a skate park north of Gaza City. Skateboards are already en route and members of the group plan to follow them in the coming weeks with tools and materials purchased in Egypt.
The project was devised by skateboarder and graphic designer Enrico Dorante, a Brazilian national who lives in Hackney. He has recruited a seven-person team that includes Alexandra Lort-Phillips, a youth worker, also from Hackney, who was the subject of national media coverage in 2010 when she was arrested by the Israeli army while taking part in the ‘freedom flotilla’ to Gaza.
“We want to leave them with a new activity to do, somewhere to hang out and something else to focus on rather than conflict. I think skateboarding can give an opportunity to connect to the rest of the world. The nature of skateboarding is social, it’s not competitive in the same way other sports are,” says Dorante.
The project is not just about skateboarding, though. The group plan to spend a week teaching recruits carpentry and art skills before starting to build the park with their help: “All the tools we take we’re going to donate to them, we hope that in the future they will be able to work on the ramp further and put their carpentry skills and tools to other uses,” says Dorante.
Originally inspired by Matthew Olsen, the director of Explore Corps who helped to set up the Gaza Surf Club in 2008, the project began to come together when Dorante contacted members of Camps Breakerz, a Gaza-based breakdancing crew, two years ago. “When I first mentioned my plan to the b-boys they got quite excited about the idea and really pushed me on. They even sent me videos of kids shouting in the street, asking us to come to Gaza and bring skateboards,” he says.
Members of Camps Breakerz will be the first point of contact for Skate Jam and provide accommodation for them in Gaza City. Importantly, they have also sorted a location for the park.
Ahmed Ismail co-founded the group in 2004. During a short break from his day job as a nurse in Gaza, he explains: “The ministry of culture here are going to give us a hand and help us make the project happen and give us land north of Gaza City, near the sea, to build the ramp.”
Although there is no active skateboarding scene in Gaza, the popularity of breakdancing and parkour suggests that it should be easy to get kids interested.
“There are a few individuals that skateboard in Gaza who have learned from TV and the Internet, but no groups of kids. I think Skate Jam is a very good project for Gaza because it’s the first that will train kids in the sport. Skateboarding will bring a new activity for them to put their energy into,” says Ismail.
Other members of Skate Jam include Mohammed Zakaria, a Palestinian Jordanian who founded Philadelphia Skateboards, the first Arabic skate company, and Rise Up International’s Jesse Roberts, who has run art classes in the West Bank – something that he will also do in Gaza.
“Our goal is to give youth a creative voice through art and sporting projects like this. It’s been amazing seeing youth come alive when they have a chance to be creative. We will be doing art workshops with this project and painting some murals in the area, we are excited to be back in the region,” says Roberts.
The group is currently making its way to Egypt, having obtained a permit to cross into the Gaza Strip. With a variety of skills at their disposal, they hope to have kids skating in March.