Volunteer Interview:
Dani Abulhawa &
Lilly Hartmann

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!

Asira Al-Shamaliya girls school, 2015. Photo: Christian Nilsen.

Asira Al-Shamaliya girls school, 2015. Photo: Christian Nilsen.

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! 

Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. 

Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. 

Photos: Emil Agerskov

Photos: Emil Agerskov

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.

Asira Al-Shamaliya girls school, 2015. Photo: Christian Nilsen

Asira Al-Shamaliya girls school, 2015. Photo: Christian Nilsen

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!!

Asira Al-Shamaliya . 2015. Photo: Christian Nilsen

Asira Al-Shamaliya. 2015. Photo: Christian Nilsen

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!

Asira Al-Shamaliya girls school,   2015.  Photo: Christian Nilsen

Asira Al-Shamaliya girls school, 2015. Photo: Christian Nilsen

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.

Asira Al-Shamaliya,   2015.  Photo: Emil Agerskov

Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. Photo: Emil Agerskov

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.

Lilly frontside 5.0's during the opening day of Asira skatepark, Oct 2015. Photo: Emil Agerskov

Lilly frontside 5.0's during the opening day of Asira skatepark, Oct 2015. Photo: Emil Agerskov

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.

Asira Al-Shamaliya girls school,   2015.  Photo: Christian Nilsen

Asira Al-Shamaliya girls school, 2015. Photo: Christian Nilsen

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!

Asira Al-Shamaliya girls school,   2015. 

Asira Al-Shamaliya girls school, 2015. 

Photos: Emil Agerskov

Photos: Emil Agerskov

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 info@skatepal.co.uk!

Dani and Lilly also documented their time in Palestine with an article for Girl Skate UK - check it out!

Volunteer Interview:
Chris Jones

Feeble to fakie. Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. Photo: Emil Agerskov

Feeble to fakie. Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. Photo: Emil Agerskov

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.

Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. Photo: Emil Agerskov

Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. Photo: Emil Agerskov

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. 

Volcano ollie at Zebabdeh skatepark, 2014. Photo: Martin O Grady

Volcano ollie at Zebabdeh skatepark, 2014. Photo: Martin O Grady

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.

Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. Photo: Emil Agerskov

Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. Photo: Emil Agerskov

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.

Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. Photo:  Lily Hartmann

Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. Photo: Lily Hartmann

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. 

Switch wallie at Qalandia checkpoint, 2015. Photo: Emil Agerskov

Switch wallie at Qalandia checkpoint, 2015. Photo: Emil Agerskov

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.

Pivot fakie. Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. 

Pivot fakie. Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. 

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.

Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. 

Asira Al-Shamaliya, 2015. 

Photos: Emil Agerskov

Photos: Emil Agerskov

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.

Video: Chris takes a break from building to test out the new obstacles in Asira Al-Shamaliya.

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?

Do it! 

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.

Thanks Chris!

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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