Skateboarding is empowering young Palestinians
Non-profit SkatePal is building skateparks and providing lessons to kids in occupied Palestine, “transposing boundaries and political situations to create a sense of community and self-confidence.”
Since 2013, across landlocked villages and cities in Palestine’s West Bank, SkatePal has been on a tireless mission to empower and support the country’s youth through skateboarding. In that time, the non-profit has built some of the area’s first and finest ramps and skateparks, while providing key equipment and hosting summer camps for young Palestinians to take part in as a community.
“These things transpose boundaries and political situations to create a sense of community and self-confidence,” Charlie Davis, SkatePal’s Edinburgh-based founder, says. “You do it in a team, but really, it’s you against yourself. It’s good for your mental and physical health. When you build a skatepark in the UK, antisocial behaviour and crime goes down. It really helps kids.”
Davis first visited Palestine back in 2006 to teach English after finishing school. His skating in the street after classes caught the attention of his Palestinian peers, who immediately wanted to get involved. “I thought: if someone were to bring more boards here, this would probably take off,” Davis continues. He was only 19 and felt the most useful thing he could do at that point was go back home and study Arabic as part of his degree.
Around the same time, skating NGO Skateistan was taking off, putting boards into the hands of those who needed them the most. The organisation’s skateboarding programmes proved hugely popular with kids in Afghanistan, which made Davis think there was no reason he couldn’t achieve the same thing in Palestine. Tentatively, he spearheaded a summer camp there, piquing the interest of international skaters. And so the beginning of SkatePal was well underway.
“I met two skaters in Palestine, Adham and Aram, who’s now the local manager. Many of the older generation of skaters have now left, as many people do in Palestine, but there’s still a hardcore crew who are keeping the scene going,” Davis says.
The non-profit is currently based in both London and Ramallah, with a goal to one day hand over all its UK operations to local Palestinian skaters. Ultimately, SkatePal wants them to nurture the scene themselves – once they’ve been taught how to fix up skateparks and run accompanying skate shops, it’ll be a pretty hands-off affair. “In the next four or five years, I hope SkatePal will be established enough that we can take a step back and just promote it as a destination,” Davis says.
He also points out that building a proper skate scene from the ground-up is no small feat. Even in Edinburgh it took years, with skate shops finding it hard to make ends meet from simply selling boards. In Palestine, much of SkatePal’s parks are built in villages, since it’s so hard to obtain land in occupied cities.
“[This means] the scene is very contained, which is fine, and you’d find that in some UK places, too. But for something like that to really grow and expand, you need that street element with people skating around the town. There’s now a renewed enthusiasm,” Davis says.
In Palestinian schools, headmasters have noticed a positive change in kids who skate. A far cry from being unfairly associated with lazy, antisocial behaviour in the UK or US, they can see how invaluable it is to young people’s development. “Building concrete parks in Palestine means a lot more than it does over here because of the lack of space and the occupation,” Davis continues. “For Aram specifically, it’s given him something positive to focus on in dark times.”
Last week, the first group of volunteers arrived in Ramallah, two years since the pandemic began. As of 2022, SkatePal has built three skate parks, with plans to get approval for a few more. “The one being used the most, in Asira, has quite a family hangout vibe. Skating in villages has become something everyone in Palestine can get behind. People come from around the country to go and visit, and we’re now getting to that stage where we understand the process and follow-up to keep things growing in a sustainable way.”