We caught up with UK-based SkatePAL volunteers Dani Abulhawa and Lilly Hartmann, to chat about their shared Palestinian heritage and their experience of teaching skateboarding in the West Bank!
What made you want to volunteer with SkatePAL? How did you find out about the charity and how long did you come for on this trip?
D: I found out about SkatePAL during the summer of 2014. I saw a video of Chris Jones skating in Ramallah, which isn’t a typical image you see coming out of the West Bank. I’m half Palestinian, so I have a family connection with the country and I was keen to know more and to do something to support the organisation. I ended up going out to Palestine for one month in September 2015 to help out with the skatepark build in Asira, and to teach skateboarding to the children there.
L: I found out about the charity through friends. For me it was the chance to visit such an interesting and amazing place, meet new people, experience a new culture, design, build and skate one of the first skateparks in Palestine!
What were your preconceptions of Palestine before arriving? How much did you know about the area?
D: I’ve visited Palestine/Israel before, on family trips to see my relatives, so I knew about the situation there. I was really nervous about going out for the SkatePAL trip, not just in terms of the dangers associated with the occupation, but I was also really nervous about spending time and skating with a group of people I didn’t know. But, it was the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had.
L: I tried not to have preconceptions and to go with an open mind, but I was passed on fear by talking to people who had - the average picture of Palestine is bombs, bullets, fire and chaos and filled with unfriendly people. I had been following the Palestinian/Israeli conflict for about a year before deciding to go and I spent some time reading Gaza: A History as well as a few journals and papers.
I spoke to relatives who had left, however they couldn't really prepare me for the journey. I just had to go and find out for myself. Palestine is filled with beauty: the people are wonderful and quite possibly the friendliest people I have met, everyone would invite us in for coffee, tea, food and want to give everything. I left with an armful of friendship bracelets from the new skater girls who were just unbelievably sweet and I was adopted by a family who lived in the village who were incredibly supportive and welcoming.
What was it like being the only two female volunteers on the trip?
D: The other volunteers on the trip and the local people of Asira were really kind and friendly, and I always felt welcomed. But our presence as skateboarders, and particularly on the building site grafting away alongside the men on the trip, was definitely considered unusual. We were located in a very different cultural setting in which there are more explicit forms of segregation between women and men, and well-defined roles for women and men to take, so we were always negotiating the gender politics of the situation. Of course, much of that is the similar in the UK anyway!
L: It was challenging at some points but more often than not it wasn't really an issue! The team was friendly and the town too was supportive. I tried not to think about it too much and just get on with it. Girl company is super important to me, I like even mixes because I find it more relaxed. I would love to get a larger group of like-minded girls out next time!!
How was it teaching the girls in Asira? What were the difficulties and successes?
D: It was wonderful to teach the girls to skate. So many of them were interested in trying it out. It was difficult not having much in the way of Arabic language skills, but they were really fast learners and listened very carefully, so they made quick progress. Without there being other women to teach them on a regular basis and to help create a space for the girls to use the park it’s going to be tricky for them to develop a consistent practice and to improve their skills. I really hope other female skaters from around the globe will be inspired to go out to Palestine and teach in the coming years.
L: The girls were super hyped all of the time. They were real gems and I Whatsapp some of them daily! They listened, practiced and picked up all that they could in the time they had but it's not enough if they really want to skate. Difficulties included culture clashes to do with ideals of appropriate female behaviour. Successes - well, teaching 30 girls the first steps of skateboarding! I would probably say the best success is the fact that the girls are CRAZY about skating!
So you're both half-Palestinian, had you been to Palestine before? How did your family react when you decided to volunteer?
D: My family were really supportive of me going out there to connect with my roots and to help build the park and teach skating. I have a lot of relatives who live in East Jerusalem, and they were really interested in what I was doing, and pleased to see me!
L: I had never been. The entire Arab side of my family was mostly horrified. However, a few relatives were incredibly supportive and they even put money to the fundraising! Yes!! :D
How did people in Palestine react when you told them your family was originally from there?
D: They thought it was great that I was taking part in the project and visiting Palestine. They were interested in where my Dad was born and where my family live. Mostly they were shocked at how little Arabic I could speak, given that my Dad is a native speaker! Ha ha.
L: They couldn't believe it, it definitely brought us closer.
How did your ideas about Palestine change throughout the trip? What have you learnt?
D: I was already somewhat aware of how things are for people living in this very conflicted geographic region, but being there really makes you aware of the complexity of the situation. The problem with getting news through mainstream media outlets is that the situation gets simplified and the details become lost. There is fighting, devastation and injustices, but there is also beauty and kindness, and people who want to be defined by something other than occupation and war. It was wonderful to spend time with people in Asira, to be part of that community and to make those specific connections with people.
L: Palestine is an amazing and colourful place. The people are really friendly, but it's obviously a very difficult place to live. It made me really appreciate having grown up in the UK, with the freedom to travel and leave our country whenever we like.
Why do you think skateboarding is important for people in places like the West Bank?
D: It’s important in so far as its a form of play, and playing makes you feel connected with your environment and other people, and with yourself. I can only speak from my own perspective, but there’s something about that smooth flowing movement, and having small achievements with tricks that’s good for wellbeing. Personally, it makes me feel very present in the moment and helps me to feel balanced, focused and calm.
L: Skateboarding brings freedom and that is the thing that Palestinians crave more than anything. Children and young people need hobbies and to be active in a productive way, just imagine if a few decades from now that there could be a sponsored skater from Palestine - that would mean global recognition for a country that is striving for statehood. Skating could help the youth of Palestine look towards the future in a constructive way.
What stood out for you on the trip?
D: I loved the fact that not one day was the same. Every day was surprising and interesting.
L: Meeting the children and the local community. They were just great. Being driven by Sami or by other neighbours to and from site everyday in their cool old trucks, passing through acres of olive trees and rocky hills in blazing sunshine listening to music and taking photos. Getting crazy on the D'floor with the team and having a laugh at Snowbar in Ramallah.
Do you have any plans to come back with SkatePAL in the future?
D: Yes, I am planning on going back to work with SkatePAL in 2016 and hopefully in future years too.
L: I do - I promised everyone that I would!!! I have to go back.
What are you up to now, what are your plans for 2016?
D: I work as an academic at Sheffield Hallam University, so I’m busy with the second semester of teaching, as well as continuing my professional practice making performances, and trying to publish my research. Oh, and I’ll also be keeping up with skating in Manchester as much as I can!
L: I am up to my eyeballs in work - architecture is no mean feat. But hopefully I'll be back in Palestine soon!
What would you say to people who are considering volunteering with SkatePAL?
D: You should do it! It will confound your expectations. Be open and say yes to things. You don’t need to be an amazing skateboarder - believe me, I’m a huge under-achiever as far as skateboarding goes! You just need to be confident and have some basic skills. You will love it.
L: It is a must - it will change your life. I am so much more grateful for everything that I have. When you're there, just appreciate being in the moment and go with your gut. You'll be so happy you did! 'People are more likely to help you than hurt you'. Don't let fear stop you, get some reading done and research the area from non-biased sources. You might be surprised by what you find. Ramallah is a great place and is slowly becoming more accustomed to tourists.
Anything else you'd like to add?
D: I’m not going to say it was an easy trip, because it was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. Particularly in terms of witnessing the occupation, being a woman in this environment, and having to deal with the everyday difficulties of not speaking the language and trying to get around. But it was worth it for the personal growth I experienced, and the friendships I’ve made.
L: Go for it!
Thanks Dani and Lilly!
We're currently recruiting volunteers to teach at our skateparks in the West Bank throughout 2016.
For more information and to receive your application form, drop us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Dani and Lilly also documented their time in Palestine with an article for Girl Skate UK - check it out!