A few months back we chatted to SkatePal volunteers Kristi Sanders from California and Bella Warley from Leeds, to find out how they got on teaching the girls in Asira Al-Shamaliya during the month of Ramadan.
What made you want to volunteer with SkatePal? How did you find out about the charity?
Kristi: I discovered SkatePal though a friend who randomly tagged me on a SkatePal Instagram post. For maybe 20 seconds I stared at the image of a SkatePal volunteer holding the hands of a young Palestinian child learning to skate.
Something about that photo, the feeling I got when I looked at it would supersede any apprehension or anything else going on in my life. It was an intense reaction. Obviously I applied. Three reasons the trip appealed to me were; Palestine is a fascinating country, one month seemed like a reasonable amount of time, and there is no greater feeling than sharing the stoke. Plus it was written in the coffee grounds.
Bella: I was at a gig which was raising money for SkatePal – I think Charlie’s brother is in the band which was playing so I found out more about the charity through him, emailed Charlie and got accepted as a volunteer!
What were your preconceptions of Palestine before arriving? How much did you know about Israel / Palestine before arriving?
Kristi: With the exception of a few Ilian Pappe books and Joe Sacco’s Palestine, I really didn’t have a grasp.
Bella: A lot of people’s reactions were ‘ooh do be careful!’, so I was a little nervous to begin with since a lot of media only refers to or talks about Palestine in the context of conflict and war, thus forming many people’s opinions of the place for them.
I tried to do as much research as I could about the history of the two places before I went out, but it is hard to get a real grasp on the situation without experiencing it first hand, and more importantly talking to people whose lives are affected by present situation – so before I went out I truthfully had what turned out to be a tiny grasp on the state of the political climate, and what the wall means to both Palestinians and Israelis.
What was it like being the only female volunteers on the trip?
Kristi: It was my good fortune that Bella volunteered the same month as me. We definitely bonded. Even if a thousand females volunteered, Bella and I would have become fast friends. She’s just that kind of person. At the park however, more female volunteers would have been helpful. It could be a bit hectic with so many girls needing our help. It wasn’t that the boys (volunteers) weren’t assisting. They were! But the girls naturally gravitated to the female volunteers.
Bella: It was absolutely incredible being the only girls on the trip. I was prepared for it to be different, as in what it means to be a young woman in the Middle East compared to in England. Kristi and I certainly had some new and interesting experiences while being shown how to act appropriately (as a woman) in public by our friend Batool.
However it was amazing to connect with the other girls out in Palestine, whether they were skateboarding or not, and finding common interests and similarities and differences in our respective cultures. It was pretty awesome as well since we also had some great male volunteers to hang out with in the evenings, since it was rare for women to go out unaccompanied by men to play pool at night time, so we fortunately had people we could go with.
How was it teaching the girls in Asira? What were the difficulties and successes?
Kristi: Difficulties…I remember one day so many girls showed up that there were simply not enough boards to distribute. That was a bummer. The successes! There were so many, everything from encouraging the most timid of girls to step on the board, to witnessing the most surefooted and advanced skaters progressing at light speed.
Bella: Well, since we were out there during Ramadan, we were prepared for fewer girls to be turning up to lessons, for obvious reasons. Although it was not overrun with girls, there were certainly a good amount of committed female shredders who were there almost every day without fail!
One of the most obvious struggles, which I’m sure, only applied during Ramadan, was that the girls (although doing very well to hide it) were thirsty and hungry and tired. Despite all this, their resilience was admirable, they never lost energy or interest and with regular sit downs they still progressed at lightening speed.
One of the most incredible things was watching the slightly older girls, who could see that Kristi and I were struggling along in broken Arabic, would interpret our movements, and translate what we were trying to say to the younger girls – and from that they were more than happy to take the reigns and begin coaching and helping each other. It’s one of the best things to know that this is a sustainable project and does not wholly rely on the help of the volunteers to keep running!
Another obvious success in my eyes was seeing how skateboarding builds up the girl’s confidence, they command their own space in the skatepark and will let a boy know if he has cut in front of her! One of the nicest memories I have was watching Kristi and 11 year old Basma in the line-up and Basma having her turn amongst a crowd of young men, and finishing to a sea of cheers from them all.
How did your ideas about Palestine change throughout the trip? What have you learnt?
Kristi: Before my visit my ideas on Palestine were pretty vague, but when you invest mutual time and experiences in a community your perspective inevitably forms. As for the people of Palestine, I felt nothing but hospitality and love. Generosity is a cornerstone of life in Asira and I suspect all of Palestine. We were offered car rides everywhere we needed to go, hosted for Iftar meals (evening meal during Ramadan) by several families, provided left-overs of food. Bella and I were even gifted clothes, jewellery and cheese (thank you Batool, Abu and San, and Doha!).
Bella: Before I came out I was talking to a friend of mine who had been to the village where we stayed and he had said what an amazing friendly and welcoming place it was, and in truth, he couldn’t have been praising enough. I have never visited a more peaceful, welcoming, inclusive place, with an amazing sense of community and an even more amazing attitude to strange foreigners dawning on them!
This of course is not always the case and geographically, there are cities, which are much more heavily affected by the wall like Qalqiliya – where there are more obvious indications of conflict. Even in those places though which we visited at weekends the general attitudes of most people were friendly and welcoming, and not to mention these young people had so much zest for life, something I think skateboarding fits so well with. People we met were so proud of their country, and for good reason. It is a beautiful, interesting, cultural and vibrant place.
Why do you think skateboarding is important for people in places like the West Bank?
Kristi: The West Bank is an agitated area. Occupation has bred a feeling of powerlessness for Palestinians. Skateboarding offers an opportunity to redirect some of the frustration into a different energy, one that is creative and cathartic in nature. This is where skateboarding rules.
Culture, language, land and resources can be taken away. The visceral feeling of skateboarding, of learning something new, of expressing your unique self CANNOT. Skateboarding nurtures a sense of belonging, binding people from different backgrounds together. It can be collaborative in spirit and typically thrives under this community synergy.
While there is nothing more glorious than sharing the stoke of skateboarding with others, skateboarding is not reliant on that community to survive. This is an important distinction because the happiness that derives from skateboarding is not dependent on others but within the individual skater. It is a powerful tool for both connection and self-empowerment. Ownership of one’s capabilities and potential, is something that no one can take away.
Bella: Skateboarding is important for people in the West Bank, and people the world over because it is a feasible and practical hobby to acquire - requiring very little other than you and your board. It teaches young people to care for something, to develop a skill, and to spend time outside.
The kids in the West Bank are growing up in an oppressed environment, where their resources and opportunities are fettered and so what they need are ways to express themselves and show the world what they are capable of! Skateboarding also plays such a key part in developing kids confidence. In the month we were there, the ones that started out a little shy or nervous on the board became louder and more outgoing as the days went on, and I hope that translates into all other aspects of their lives!
Fundamentally, skateboarding is some of the best times I have ever had, and you can tell with the kids who eventually start to feel more comfortable on the boards, how much they love it when their huge grins are staring up at you.
What stood out for you on the trip?
Kristi: The spirit of generosity was off-the-charts. Between the numerous car rides, Iftar dinners, and parting gifts, the people in Asira were so giving! There was one moment in particular. While I was helping this one girl, Meenas learn to rock-fakie, another less experienced girl was saying something to me in Arabic. I couldn’t understand what the girl was saying, but Meenas did. Tail on coping, ready to drop in Meenas withdrew her board and said to me. “She needs your help more.”
Without waiting for my response Meenas pulled her board away from the coping and said. “Could you please help her drop in.” It was subtle, but moving. Meenas forfeited her own desires for someone else! The crazy thing is that Meenas was not the only one to give way to someone who needed it more. On more than one occasion the kids offered up their “skate-time” for another skater.
Bella: The thing that stood out for me was the kindness of everyone we met. It was so ingrained in their nature to share with us everything they had, food, drink, stories, experiences, plans for the future, their homes!
Their attitudes towards each other was amazing, friends, brothers and sisters at the skate park would all share boards, and stick together and encourage each other, teach each other and shout for each other wanting praise for landing a new trick. It is important to me to have someone to enjoy skateboarding with and that is something these kids will always have due to the nature of their community.
Do you have any plans to come back with SkatePal in the future?
Kristi: I would welcome a return visit!
Bella: I most definitely want to come out with SkatePal in the future, to see what the first generation of Palestinian female skateboarders grow up to be like! I’m still at University so still have the long summer holidays, so if I can find the money, the time shouldn’t be a problem.
What’s your local skate-scene like?
Kristi: Skateboarding is so prevalent in Southern California that you could randomly show up at a skate spot or park and it’s likely you’ll know someone there. I skate with an amazing crew that enjoys the more DIY-backyard style of round-wall, so in that sense the scene is a fraction smaller.
Skating is so interconnected I feel like my core crew has grown, extending from Southern California to Northern California …from California to Portland to Colorado, from the United States to Canada to Spain and now… Palestine. Connection is a key component to skateboarding. It’s part of the beauty of skateboarding.
Bella: Even though it is still heavily male dominated, the scene in Leeds is so prominent - the park is always rammed and you can always hear a skateboard around the streets of the city. There are regular girls only nights too at our local indoor park where the scene is insane, so many young girls come along and absolutely kill it.
What would you say to other female skaters considering volunteering with SkatePal?
Kristi: DO IT!!!
Anything else you'd like to add?
Kristi: Many thanks to the people and families that hosted our dinners; The Jawabreh family, the Sawalmeh family, Jarara’a, family, Abu Khalid (the Mayor), Mohammed Sawalha, Mohammad Othman, Maad Abu-Ghazaleh.
Thanks to all the friends and family that supported the funding. Jacks Garage for sponsoring a large portion of my campaign and gifting the children with goodies. Thanks to the incredible group of SkatePal volunteers that kept it haram. I love every single one of you! And SkatePal, for offering this amazing opportunity.
Bella: Don’t hesitate for a second!! Try and find the time because it was one of the best things I’ve ever done - working with kids is always going to be a wicked experience but getting to do it and skate at the same time is something special. Seeing the young girls skating is amazing and knowing that your work is helping globalise the sport and also break down gender barriers in the Middle East is pretty cool.
Finally, Palestine is somewhere worth visiting either way, just err on the side of caution as you would in all foreign countries and you’ll be fine!