Despite being unfamiliar to the Palestinian community, skateboarding is no longer a male domain, with girls given special attention by Italian Gaza FREEstyle this year
In an unprecedented show of support for Gazan skaters, including girls, the Italian organization Gaza FREEstyle has undertaken to train Gazan girls in skateboarding for the first time and devoted a whole group of professional female skaters for that purpose.
The organization, which began its activities in the Gaza Strip in 2014, established the first skate park in the port area in 2017 and continued improving it since then, allowing hundreds of skaters to practice their favorite sport and marking a point of reference for new freestyle crews.
So far, they managed to bring 300 skateboards, spare parts and other supplies from Italy to the strip.
Feras Abuamra, a 13-year-old professional skater, who has been skateboarding for two years, told The Media Line that “I used to skate on roller skates but they broke down and I couldn’t afford new ones. The Italians gave me a skateboard and I loved it very much.”
The project attempted to provide Gazan youth with some kind of breathing space and hope to live a normal life in a place that has nothing to do with normality, especially given the fact that the besieged enclave of 365 square kilometers and almost 2 million residents lacks basic facilities, much less recreational ones.
Rajab Alrifi, a Gazan skateboard coach who heads the Gaza Skate team and trains with almost 70 other skaters, told The Media Line that the harsh circumstances in the strip have made it more difficult for Gazan skaters to practice their sport, “especially with the lack of safe skating equipment and tools here in the strip, which puts us at high risk.”
This year’s activities include a new element: Girls are being encouraged to take skating lessons despite the barriers of local traditions and customs that would normally preclude such outgoing, assertive behavior among girls.
André Lucat, a photographer and member of the Gaza FREEstyle team, told The Media Line that “last year, there was no girls skating group, so we decided to go to the next level with girls and we knew that the only way to do so was to bring female skaters from Italy.”
He continued: “From the first day, we saw that there was huge energy and that young girls in Gaza were actually interested [in skating] and wanted to play and be outside.”
The look on the young skaters’ faces tells how much this place means for them. Sara, a 12-year-old Gazan girl who makes sure to attend all skating lessons, told The Media Line that she was anxiously waiting for the group to reach Gaza to join their activities.
“I can’t tell you how happy I felt once I had my first skateboard. It was the best gift I’ve ever received,” she said with pleasure.
“It gives me a little hope that finally, we can enjoy pursuing our interests – same as the boys. We will prove that Gazan girls can do literally anything,” she concluded.
However, the team faced numerous obstacles, starting with obtaining Israeli permission to enter the strip. Additional permission was required from Hamas, the ruling party in the coastal enclave.
Lucat said, “We had to take Israeli permission as well as permission from Hamas, which gave it to us with some problems.”
He elaborated, “On the first day, we went to Rafah [the southern governorate of the strip], and were arrested and detained for two hours until we were released. Yesterday, we were in the middle of giving skating lessons to the girls and another policeman came, saying we are not allowed to do so.”
Lucat clarified that the team had a similar experience with Hamas police when they first built the skate park in the port area.
“But still, this place exists and we are here to help and support,” he said.
At the end of each year’s activities, the group holds a significant festival to celebrate with local Gazan participants.
With a huge crowd of girls, boys and families flowing through the city, a joyous festival filled with activities, including skateboard performing, rapping, and dancing Palestinian dabkeh, took place on January 7 in the port area of Gaza City to conclude the program.
In cooperation with other Italian groups, Gaza FREEstyle is part of a larger project, called Green Hopes Gaza.
That project, funded by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) and implemented by the Cooperation and Solidarity Association (ACS), is a social and environmental urban redevelopment project in the North Gaza governorate. The project started in 2019 and is ongoing.
On an area of 3.7 acres (1.5 hectares), there will be a multifunctional building, three sports fields, three playgrounds for children, two skateboarding ramps, a circus area and an area for community greenhouses.
Gazans believe that with such facilities and support, 2020 could be less cruel and more hopeful for a population that has almost given up hope.