Chris Jones is a great skateboarder and all round good guy. Originally from South Wales but now residing in South London, Chris first got involved in SkatePAL as a volunteer in 2014 when he applied to help build the Zebabdeh skatepark and teach classes in Ramallah.
Since then, he's been helping with fundraising events for SkatePAL in London, travelling the world filming with Isle skateboards for their new video 'Vase', working in the Natural History Museum and building skateparks in both Palestine and Myanmar, all whilst finding time to run the Pickup Or Die Instagram account.
We caught up with Chris on his way back from Bangkok to chat about skatepark construction, the Isle video, and why he'll keep coming back to volunteer with SkatePAL.
So this was your second time in the West Bank with SkatePAL, what made you want to get involved originally? How did you find out about the charity?
I originally found out about SkatePAL through one of my friends at the pub who knew Charlie's brother. I ended up looking it up and it sounded like a really interesting charity with a good focus. I found out there was a project coming up. It was all last minute but I contacted Charlie asking if it was possible to come out. Luckily he said yes.
How long did you spend in Zebabdeh and Asira Al-Shamaliya? What was the difference between working on both skateparks?
During my first visit in 2014 I was mainly back and fourth between Ramallah and Zebabdeh. In total I spent about one month there. This time, I stayed a bit longer and was in Asira the whole time. There were quite a few differences between the Zebabdeh and Asira projects.
One of the main differences was the amount of people we had on site. Unfortunately, Israel launched operation Protective Edge just before the Zebabdeh project was due to start which meant there were a lot of things in the news about bombings in Gaza. This put some people off coming out which meant we were severely understaffed. As a result, we had no choice but to work a lot of long hours with little time off. Although there were still many long hours involved during the Asira build, having more volunteers meant there were days people could take time off and go do some other things elsewhere around the West Bank.
Although a lot of the kids got on fine In Zebabdeh, there was definitely more altercations between some of the kids compared to in Asira, which was non existent as far as I am aware of. At the beginning these altercations were very testing and sometimes made running some of the classes quite difficult. The language barrier made these situations even more difficult and left the responsibility of finding out what exactly was wrong in the hands of Charlie and Finn (who both speak Arabic), as they were the only two who could ever understand and mediate between the kids.
Despite some initial interpretations of these altercations possibly being a result of the mixed religious composition of the Zebabdeh community (which is both Christian and Muslim), it was more likely it was a simple case of older kids giving the smaller ones a harder time. Either way, as the project progressed all of the kids in Zebabdeh, no matter their religious background, eventually started to play together and get on.
One thing I can say for certain is that there was a difference between Zebabdeh and Asira in terms of the religious demographic, and this affected certain things such as the availability of alcohol. Zebaddeh is mixed, Christian and Muslim, so they sold and drank alcohol, whereas Asira was a dry community, not including a nearby Samaritan village near Nablus where you could drink.
How has the charity evolved since you first got involved?
It's evolved a lot. The Zebabdeh park was the first concrete skatepark SkatePAL ever built so it was obvious the second one was going to be to a higher standard. Beyond the quality of the build improving, since the first project there has been various articles and videos about SkatePAL’s work which has helped spread awareness of the charity, meaning more people are now aware of it. The increased presence on social media has helped as well. It would be nice to see it carry on growing.
What were your preconceptions of Palestine before arriving? How much did you know about Israel / Palestine before your first trip?
I really didn't know what to expect the first time I went. I had never been to an Arab country before so couldn’t really imagine what it would be like. I had obviously read and watched stuff about Israel and Palestine so was aware of the occupation and knew a bit about the situation, but was definitely slightly unsure as to what exactly was going on. Just before I went in 2014 there was a lot of media attention in Palestine due to the conflict, and I'd be lying if I wasn't slightly put off going during this time and thought maybe I was being a bit naive by going during this period but I'm so glad I did.
How did your ideas change across the two trips?
To be honest, I was not expecting how severe the level of occupation was going to be in the West Bank, which only seems to be getting worse. I had an idea what it would be like from reading and watching documentaries about it but after travelling around seeing the settlements, checkpoints and overall presence of the IDF it was definitely a lot worse than I expected. Once you start talking to people and hearing their stories about the occupation it's shocking to learn about how much it affects everyday life and how violated Palestinians' human rights really are.
One thing I did not expect when arriving in Asira this time was that it would be difficult for men to teach the girls. In previous trips the restrictions were not as noticeable as in Asira which is a more traditional town than Zebabdeh. We also only had two female volunteers this year, Lily and Dani, and it was left to them to run skate workshops for large groups of girls who showed a strong interest in skateboarding. It would be great if more women volunteered for SkatePAL in future projects to help if this situations arises again.
My ideas of the general way of life have definitely changed during my visits. At the beginning of my first visit I remember it being a nightmare trying to get the correct materials and equipment on time so the project could begin. The “inshallah” (translated as 'God Willing') way of life was definitely something I was not so used to and could be very frustrating on days when you would just be sat around waiting for materials to arrive.
However, I’d say I grew to appreciate the relaxed approach of getting things done which I would once just have recognised as laziness, even if it means a task which would usually take a couple of hours can be stretched over a number of days.
Before visiting I had a stupid preconception in the back of mind that there would be a degree of hostility from members of the public towards British citizens as a result of the history of the area and the neglect they may feel on an international level.
Despite me being slightly unsure whether I should say my nationality when I first arrived I soon realised this stupid thought didn't matter, as the majority of Palestinian people I’ve met are some of the most welcoming, kindest and inspiring people, and me being British was never even an issue in the slightest. When you walk around in smaller towns you are constantly invited in to peoples homes for tea, coffee or lunch with their families which is a lovely part of Palestinian culture.
What made you want to come back?
The cheap Easy Jet flights to a hot country man, how else am I going to work on this sweet tan! Nah just joking. After I left Palestine the first time and went home to my comfortable lifestyle after meeting people, making new friends and witnessing the level of human rights violations I was constantly thinking about the place and reading about Palestine in the news, so naturally felt an urge to go back. These projects are always really fun and I was still really into the charity after the first project and wanted to see how we would get on in a second one, so couldn’t refuse to go after I heard there was going to be another build. It also helps that the food is banging and I love falafel and kanafeh (hot sweets made with cheese).
Why do you think skateboarding is important for people in places like the West Bank?
As a form of play I think it's really good for kids and young adults in the West Bank because of a number of reasons. This will naturally sound a bit cheesy but I think its a great outlet for stress. It can be the most enjoyable thing when you're out with friends having fun and messing about on a piece of wood. I definitely find it can take my mind off things and the various little stresses I may have going on in my life at the time, and this would definitely be a useful thing for a child in a stressful place like the West Bank. Also, I definitely know it works as a great way to meet new friends from different parts of the world and within the country in which you're based.
The benefits of meeting friends from outside your town serves a host of benefits, especially for a child in the West Bank who may never leave their little town. Skateboarding is also a new activity in the West Bank so is not gender specific, which means that girls who are perhaps not included in a lot of sports could ride a skateboard. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll see boys and girls skating together and Palestinian kids skating with Israeli kids.
Skateboarding definitely helps a child’s development both physically and mentally by providing exercise and a healthy way of life, which is especially important in a place like the West Bank where there aren't many fun things for young people to do.
So the long-awaited Isle video, Vase has just come out - congrats on the last part! Were you surprised? Where are you know? What are your plans for the next year?
Thanks! Yeah it was definitely a nice surprise to find out I had last part. I've never closed a video so was stoked. We went straight on a little Isle trip afterwards premiering the video around England which was so much fun. Currently, I’m sat in Bangkok airport with 10 hours to kill before I fly back to London from the Pushing Myanmar skatepark build with Make Life Skate Life. I’ve got loads of ideas for next year but don’t want to jinx them. I guess in general I’ll be skating, trying to get involved in some more skatepark builds and hopefully doing stuff for SkatePAL at some point. Beyond that it's all up in the air.
How was it going from building a skatepark in Palestine to building one in Myanmar straight after?
Yeah it was really fun. Again I had the pleasure of meeting a load of really nice people and got the chance to do a solid bit of graft and learn some new things about skatepark construction. This was the first park I've worked on when I was actually around for the opening day so that was really fun. The kids seem to love it and the local skaters also seemed stoked. I know they are still in the process of figuring out a system for someone to man the loaner boards for the kids and to run classes, but the project was definitely a success.
You're obviously travelling a lot on different skate trips and stuff, how do you balance your life between skating, living and working on these sorts of skatepark projects?
For the projects I've been involved in the timing has just worked out quite well really. For last year's project with SkatePAL I actually had to quit my job in order to get the time to come. I'd had enough of it at that point anyway so timed in quite well. For the last few months I actually haven't really had a proper job either which means I have a lot of flexibility. I've been doing work here and there, volunteering and doing unpaid work for periods of time but I've been able to time things quite well which has meant I haven't had to sacrifice too much to be involved in these projects. I did have to miss the first few days of building in Myanmar as I was on that Isle tour, but managed to be there for the majority of the time so all is good.
Do you have any plans to come back with SkatePAL in the future?
Definitely, I would like to be as involved and help as much as I can in any future projects. I've got a lot of support for the charity and would like to see it grow.
What would you say to people who are considering volunteering with SkatePAL?
How many Abecs do your bearings have?
Not too sure, I have a mix of bearings I've accumulated over time. Probably a combination of 5 and 7.
Chris is sponsored by Isle, SML Wheels, Lost Art and Nike.
The Isle video Vase is out now and available for digital download at: https://vase.vhx.tv/
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