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Skate expectations: How Athens' child refugees find freedom on wheels

An unlikely urban sport is proving a lifeline for the child refugees of Athens, restoring their confidence and teaching them new skills
A young refugee tries to mount one of the handmade wooden ramps that Free Movement Skateboarding created especially for the lessons (MEE/ Demetrios Ioannou)

ATHENS, Greece –  The scorching sun has kept most people off the near-empty streets of Athens on a Wednesday.

Yet at the foot of Mount Lycabettus lies a park where the sounds of small polyurethane wheels hitting cement ground emanate out of a small open basketball court, as a chorus of singing cicada vibrate in the background like back-up vocalists. 

Welcome to the weekly skateboarding lesson for refugees living inside neighbourhood squats. 

Ruby Mateja, one of the co-founders of FMS, helps a child learn how to skateboard over a wooden ramp without falling (MEE/Demetrios Ioannou)
Under the shadow of two pine trees, members of the Free Movement Skateboarding (FMS) team, a group founded by British skateboarders to help children living in refugee camps, and volunteers are handing out skateboards, helmets and other protection equipment. A group of children, no older than 18,  wait impatiently for the lesson to begin. 

“Every week we wait for the lesson and when we see them we run to start skateboarding," says 12-year-old Resa from Syria, who is a resident of a nearby refugee camp.

The team takes some of the kids living inside of Athen’s refugee camps to a skate bowl close to the Greek capital’s centre (MEE/Demetrios Ioannou)
Some of the children have already started jumping up and down, trying to keep their balance on the four-wheeled skateboards underneath their feet.

As young refugees, escaping the routine of their challenging lives is something they all look forward to. "I feel happy when I skateboard," says Mohammad, a 15-year-old Syrian boy from Damascus.

Mohammad, a 15-year-old Syrian boy from Damascus, immediately fell in love with it after his first lesson (MEE/ Demetrios Ioannou)
Although Mohammad is lucky enough to have now moved into a home which is being paid for by a non-profit organisation, the past 10 months of his life in Greece have not been easy. 

“My life at home is good, but a bit difficult. I prefer to go outside and learn things," he said.

Ruby Mateja (in back) shows the children some difficult tricks. They are always eager to learn, but the moves are not so easy to do (MEE/Demetrios Ioannou)
Mohammad first started learning skateboarding a couple of months ago after hearing about the initiative from a friend. He immediately fell in love with the sport after his first lesson.

“I like it so much," he says. "You play with your friends and other people from different nationalities and cultures, and you can meet new friends." 

Almost all of the skateboards are second hand donations and most of them have been gifted to the kids so they can keep practising even when FMS is not with them (MEE/Demetrios Ioannou)
Although Mohammad fell off all the time in the beginning, he has now learned how to travel fast with the skateboard and jump. His confidence is at an all new high.

“Today we have a total of 210 people signed up to the sessions, most of them between six and 18-years-old, 77 of whom are girls," says Ruby Mateja, co-founder of Free Movement Skateboarding. 

Two girls ride their skateboards at the park, which is behind the church of Agios Nikolaos in central Athens (MEE/Demetrios Ioannou)
Some of the children were hesitant at first. For many, it was the first time they had touched a skateboard. 

“At first I felt scared, but not anymore,” says Atena, a 12-year-old girl from Afghanistan who has been living with her family in a nearby camp for over a year.

“When I’m on the street with the skateboard I feel like I’m flying,” says Atena, a 12-year-old girl from Afghanistan (MEE/ Demetrios Ioannou)
Despite her fears of falling down and hurting herself, things soon changed with the encouragement of her teacher Mateja, who could relate to the young girl. 

“When I’m on the street with the skateboard, I feel like I’m flying,” says Atena. 

Free Movement Skateboarding insists the children wear necessary safety equipment, such as helmets and pads (MEE/Demetrios Ioannou)
Progress has been phenomenal. Yet it is still too early for any of them to start practising difficult tricks.

“I am learning very fast,” says 12-year-old Resa from Syria, who has been practising for a month.

The children's parents encourage them to go out and skateboard as well.

At first I felt scared, but not anymore

- Atena, a 12-year-old girl from Afghanistan 

“My mum likes very much to see me skateboarding because it makes me and my sister happy. She likes it when we go outside of the camp to skate in the city,” admits Resa. 

Some sessions are held inside the camps, while others are held in public spaces like parks and basketball courts in Athens. 

A break from reality

Around 62,000 refugees and migrants, mainly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, heading to northern Europe have been stranded in Greece since European countries closed their borders in March last year. Most live in overcrowded camps.

According to UNHCR, so far in 2017 more than 18,000 have arrived on Greek shores. 

The open sessions at the small basketball court in downtown Athens draw a lot of people, mostly local children; some of them practise riding their skateboards, while others play basketball or football (MEE/Demetrios Ioannou)
For those living in the camps' dire conditions, there is not much to do to escape it. Therefore the daily skateboarding sessions, offer a much-needed break from reality. 

According to Mateja, the skateboarding sessions draw in children of different nationalities, including Greek.

Ali throws his skateboard high in the air, showing off some of the tricks he can do (MEE/Demetrios Ioannou)
"The majority of the children come from Syria and Afghanistan," explains Mateja. “In some sessions we have more than five different nationalities.

“It’s amazing how everyone is getting together," she adds.

Spiros, a Greek volunteer skateboarder, teaches a young refugee how to ride his skateboard (MEE/Demetrios Ioannou)
She says that there has been wide support from the Greek skateboarding community and many of them help with teaching whenever possible, or looking out for the children's safety. 

How it started

Founded in April 2017, Free Movement Skateboarding started when British skateboarders Will Ascott and Mateja decided to help children living in refugee camps and self-organised squats in Athens. 

Mateja recalls how the pair met in Palestine in October 2016 while each volunteering to teach young Palestinians how to skateboard for the charity SkatePal, a British non-profit organisation that aims to enhance the lives of young Palestinians through skateboarding, while building a strong skateboarding community.

“We were loosely talking about it once we were there, but I didn’t really entertain the idea that it could be a possible thing," says Mateja.

Rahim, an 18-year-old Afghani who has been living in an Athens squat, practises a jump multiple times during an open session in a park under Mount Lycabettus (MEE/Demetrios Ioannou)
“So, after Palestine, Will came directly to Greece where he was volunteering with anything they needed, [including] cooking and assisting in everything at the Khora community centre in Athens. He saw the amount of kids that are here and within weeks he called me and said: 'We have to do it’," says Mateja.

Ascott returned to the UK and, along with Mateja and Benji Sowter - another British skateboarder and also a friend of Ascott - started planning and organising the project. Meanwhile, the British charity Help Refugees agreed to fund the team for a year and turn the project into a reality.

Nineteen-year-old Ali is Rahim’s cousin. Both boys try to attend every lesson in the open sessions, and they have been improving significantly day by day (MEE/Demetrios Ioannou)
The trio undertook a fundraising tour across England, stopping at skate parks, cafes, bars and a live music venue. They organised art events and talked about the project in an attempt to raise awareness and enough money for some of the initial equipment. This included a second-hand van, a Renault Master 2009, which they travelled with from the UK to Greece.

Arriving in Athens, they bought wood with some of the money they were able to raise and built their own wooden skateboarding ramps in their rented apartment. 

Soon afterwards, they hit the road, visiting camp after camp across Athens and teaching kids how to skateboard. 

On the horizon

When the project began, FMS had 50 skateboards, helmets and sets of pads, most of which were secondhand donations. Today they have given most of them away to the children. As numbers gradually rise, there is an immediate demand for equipment.

To help with funding, FMS will launch a line of skateboard designs and T-shirts in October. Some of their prodcuts will be given away to the children, while others will be sold online to raise funds. 

Now that winter is near, they are looking for a sheltered space, to avoid postponing the sessions due to bad weather.

If something like that happened, it would be devastating for the kids. “I feel good when I’m skateboarding. I like to learn many things and I don’t want to stop,” says Atena.

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