One of the most rewarding aspects of the past five years has been watching former SkatePal volunteers set up their own organisations in different parts of the world. Will Ascott and Ruby Mateja visited Palestine in 2016 and now run the amazing Free Movement Skateboarding, working with refugee communities in Athens. We caught up with them to find out how it all began…
Hey guys, so you’d never actually met before volunteering with SkatePal right? How did you get involved in the first place?
Ruby: I first heard about SkatePal in 2016 through a friend, Sirus Gahan, who had been out to Palestine earlier that year and made a short film about his time there. At that point, I’d been skating for about 8 months and had seen only a couple of other girl skaters about. The film struck me, not only because it gave a glimpse of a place I’d always wanted to visit, but mainly because it was so incredible to see so many girl skaters fearlessly ripping around.
Will: I was sent in the direction of SkatePal by my pal Harriet Alana who runs Brash Skate & Create. We joined forces and put on a little fundraising skate jam, then I got out there in October 2016 and met Ruby, we immediately clicked!
Cool! At what point did you start discussing the idea of Free Movement Skateboarding?
Ruby: I suppose it was around half-way into our month-long trip there. We were both inspired by the atmosphere in the Asira skatepark - hearing stories and seeing first-hand the positive impact skateboarding has had for the local kids was really incredible.
Will: We had some vague ideas about the other billion contexts in which a skate project could support a disadvantaged community. In fact, there’s a certain olive tree where we sat and discussed all this stuff really early on, which Ruby subsequently drew on a birthday card and then I recently got tattooed (cute right!)
I flew from Palestine directly to Athens and found myself volunteering in a community kitchen for displaced people. I started formulating ideas for a project there, knowing it needed to be mobile to reach the remote refugee camps. A chance encounter with UK Charity Help Refugees founder Josie Naughton in the kitchen gave me the chance to pitch my idea and she was into it. I can’t tell you how surreal that was - I remember calling Ruby and having this realisation that we were both at a point in our lives where we could drop everything and move out here and do this. Things just started happening after that!
How did you find that transition from Palestine to Athens?
Ruby: To be honest we didn’t really have much time to think about it! So I think that made it easier. It was only a few weeks after Palestine that Will called me from Athens and said we had to set up a project there. We spent the next few months planning, fundraising, securing funding from Help Refugees, and gathering as many second-hand skateboards as we could. It wasn’t until we’d packed up everything into the van and started to drive out there that I had a moment to sit and think - ‘right, what’s this going to be like then?.’ Obviously I’d thought about things in terms of the project, but as regards to myself living and working in Athens, not much.
It was great though, Athens is such a fascinating place. We spent the first week there checking in with other projects, the local skate shop Ministry of Concrete, and just skating around exploring the whole city. I guess it was about four months into living there that we both suddenly felt super burnt-out. We’d gone into it full force, and although things were going really well, we’d taken on a lot and hadn’t stopped to think about giving ourselves a rest. This was a really important point though, and with the support from some wicked friends, we started to see things in a different light - to pace ourselves and gather the support around us that we needed.
How did things actually take shape once you’d arrived then?
Will: We spent about a month getting ourselves accommodation and checking out potential partner projects. We just wanted to make sure our delivery was what was needed and we were working with people, not treading on their toes.
Ruby: We were really lucky to secure funding from Help Refugees, who fund all sorts of humanitarian, solidarity and emergency-relief projects throughout Europe. Things would definitely have taken a lot longer without their support. But with their backing, we managed to turn the idea into an established project in just four months. Really the key to all of our operations has been partnering with existing projects / NGOs as well as gaining support and advice from them.
By partnering with other projects already established in refugee camps, we were able to gain access by essentially becoming part of their program. This cuts out the long and bureaucratic middle man and meant that we could start teaching sessions almost immediately. These partnerships also gave us a crucial insight into the context we were to begin working in, and essential training on understanding the effects that experiencing long-term trauma and stress can have, especially for young people.
What are the similarities and differences you guys face working in Athens compared to Palestine?
Will: The kids we work with in Athens have often experienced significant trauma in the recent past, aren’t in formal education and have no experience of skateboarding. Whereas in Palestine, the kids had relatively stable day to day lives and most young people are in school. The impact on behaviour this gives the kids in Athens is pretty significant. Our role is a lot closer to youth work than I think people realise. We are trained behavioural specialists and understand how to support kids who have been through trauma, it’s a lot more than skateboarding. Learning when to stick on the teacher voice, giving an ear to problems and being a regular, reliable person in their turbulent lives took some stepping up, but I’m honoured to do so, ‘cos these kids are sick!
Ruby: The main similarity would be that the young people we teach predominantly come from a Middle Eastern background. So that little bit of Arabic tailored to the skatepark we learnt in Palestine certainly comes in useful! Although the outcomes and intended goals of our projects are very entwined, the actual operations and day-to-day sessions are quite different. We have to keep most of our sessions really structured - especially those in the camps - because we set up our skatepark in an open area where hundreds of kids live. This means that we have to establish clear boundaries and rules - so that the people participating in the session can concentrate and get the most our of it, whilst trying to make sure we keep things as safe and calm as possible! This is why we arrange regular trips to local skateparks and hold weekly sessions at our small DIY park - because then the kids get to experience more of a natural and relaxed skate session.
In the most simple terms, the experience in Palestine gave us the confidence to go ahead with FMS, having seen that such a charity can thrive and progress. Greece is the first port-of-call for many displaced people heading West from countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran. So most of the kids we teach are also from a Middle Eastern background. Volunteering in Palestine gave us a good understanding of the culture there, which was very enlightening in the way that it broke down a lot of the preconceptions you might hear about Muslim communities. We were welcomed, despite our differences, by all the locals in Asira.
Will told me about the difficulty of taking photos in the camps, which obviously makes social media updates quite tricky. How do you get around stuff like this?
Will: We can’t take photos in camps due to government restrictions. We also can’t take photos of any individual’s face without their parents permission, but the consequences for this are higher than many think. There was a case of an NGO’s promotional material being used as evidence to prove that a family had safely travelled to Europe via Greece, resulting in their deportation. These are the most vulnerable kids in Europe, they are stateless and have next-to-no protection as such, especially if they are paperless.
This really effects the kind of media we can put out – any photos with kids faces have been carefully worked out, we go with a translator to their parents and carefully talk through the consequences of participating. Although the parents are often enthusiastic to have their child represented in a positive way that breaks the standard narrative of the refugee crisis, this proactive approach to safeguarding their identity is crucial for both us as an organisation and them as individuals.
What's an average day for FMS? Aside from scrambled eggs & dill of course : )
Ruby: Well that’s an essential part of course! Due to school hours and the climate, most of our sessions take place in the afternoon and evening. Which means the mornings are strictly for long breakfasts. But yeah, generally we have pretty chilled mornings, then get any meetings, admin-y stuff out the way before jumping in the van and driving to one of the locations we teach in.
Will: We’re up to 9 sessions a week now, so most days we offer 2 sessions, moving between public basketball courts, parks, refugee camps and skateparks. We pad up the kids, give them a yoga warm-up, teach them to skate, catering to mixed abilities, we pack up all the ramps and do it again somewhere else. With a falafel wrap in between (some things never change!).
Ruby: There’s a family in the camp that make the best falafel wraps and we have their number so we can pre-order whilst we’re driving over. It’s a pretty good set up.
You guys hosted the Globally Stoked panel at Pushing Boarders this year - how did you find that experience? Where do you think / hope the ‘skate-charity-sector’ is heading?
Will: Pushing Boarders was truly one of the best weekends of my life. It really meant a lot to be acknowledged on that platform amongst our heroes. Me and Ruby worked super hard on creating a narrative for our talk, culminating in a call to others to push skateboarding away from corporate, over-competitive, energy drink crap and towards diversity, community and slappys. I really hope to see others open up their skate scenes to those that need it most. Skateboarding’s rich culture must embrace those it has excluded and allow them to push in their own direction. The only bit of skate culture that truly matters is pissing about with mates and I like that more when my mates are mixed genders and aren’t from exactly the same background.
That considered, there are a million contexts where this works and a million different angles to take on it. There’s a lot of people that would benefit from the community, mental calm and sense of freedom skateboarding brings. People should feel empowered to start at the most basic level by giving a kid a board, or building a kicker or helping someone drop in and seeing where it goes. Chances are, there’s a lot of people who need skating more than you.
Ruby: It was great to have a proper sit down with other skate charities and discuss important topics which effect all of the work we each do. We already had a pretty clear idea of how things run at SkatePal, and have been in conversation with you guys since starting Free Movement, but it was good to discuss things in person and gain more understanding of what goes on behind the scenes.
Having us host the panel with four longer-established charities created a nice dynamic, where we could learn from the achievements / mistakes made and in turn have a discussion that was enlightening and constructive for the audience. I think our main ‘agenda’ going into it was to highlight the positive impact skateboarding can have for young people living in areas of war and conflict, show how gender parity and diversity within skateboarding can be achieved, to create more of a network between our charities and inspire other people to do something similar. I hope that skate charities all over the world will continue to support and encourage each other - this is happening already so I’m sure it will carry on. Events like Pushing Boarders are important for keeping this connection and conversation going.
Glad you enjoyed it! What’s happening next, how do you plan to make it sustainable?
Will: Next year, we are looking at getting a second vehicle so we can reach more camps. Thousands of refugees are being relocated to Athens as the overcrowded refugee camps of the Greek islands have failed to provide dignified accommodation. So with this great demand for further outreach, we will use a second vehicle to split our team and cover more places, using a greater number of volunteers to maintain quality. That’s where the reader can come in – we need more volunteers out here!
Ruby: For me personally the plan is just to get back out there! I’ve been in the UK for a while now recovering from a knee injury, so I can’t wait to rejoin the team properly and get stuck in. We’ve got the Women’s Program running now and I’m really excited to be there as it develops and get back in touch with the local skate scene as well.
Whose involved in FMS at the moment?
Ruby: We’ve got a sick little team at the moment - as well as Will and I, we’ve got Joe and Amber who joined us in August. Joe’s been out in Athens working with solidarity projects for a few years now, and Amber runs Women Skate the World - which was formed with Nanja (also during their time volunteering in Palestine). Another ex-SkatePal volunteer, Zelia has been working with us on and off this year, but is joining the team officially in January. We also have three local instructors - Spiros, who’s been working with us for over a year now, and Lydia and Olympia who joined the team last spring. That’s the core team, but we also receive a lot of support from volunteers and people who work with partnering projects in Athens.
Sounds like a great team. Anything else you’d like to add?
Ruby: We’re still on the look-out for some land to build a permanent skatepark in central Athens, so if anyone has the hook-up let us know!
Thanks guys! Keep shredding : )
Stick the kettle on and check out this great documentary about the work Free Movement Skateboarding do: