With a kickflip into Jordanian society

7Hills Skatepark via Facebook

Back in 1996 a boy of Palestinian descent living in Amman was gifted a skateboard and he started skating around the city, getting into troubles with the police and pedestrians evoking the dream of a skatepark in him. His name was Mohammed Zakaria. In 2009 he founded his own skateboard brand called ‘Philadelphia’

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is considered ‘the quiet house in a noisy neighbourhood’ due to the country’s relative stability.  Despite bordering Syria to the North, Iraq in the East as well as the Westbank and Israel to the West, all countries which have seen conflict, war or destruction in modern history, Jordan seems to be a safe haven. Therefore, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has received and welcomed several refugees since its independence in 1946.

The first significant refugee movement was Palestinians fleeing the Nakba in 1948, and again during the war of 1967 causing Palestinians to make up around half of the Jordanian population nowadays. While about 95% of Palestinians have received Jordanian citizenship, many kept their refugee status as they are under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). From 1975 to 1990, during the Lebanese Civil War, Jordan saw another influx of people seeking refuge as well as in 1991 and 2003 when refugees from Iraq arrived due to the Gulf and Iraq War. Other refugee groups include Yemenis, Somalians, and Sudanese. In 1982 the first Syrians fled to Jordan because of the massacre in Hama but in 2011 an unprecedented number sought shelter due to the Syrian Civil War.

Jordan, four times smaller than Germany in size, hosts around 1.3 million Syrian refugees according to the country’s latest census, making it the second largest receiving country per capita after Lebanon.

The city of brotherly love

Living up to its former name ‘Philadelphia’, which is Greek for brotherly love, Amman is hosting approximately 26 percent of Jordan’s registered refugee population. In the heart of the city, a skatepark is helping them integrate into society. Back in 1996 a boy of Palestinian descent living in Amman was gifted a skateboard and he started skating around the city, getting into troubles with the police and pedestrians evoking the dream of a skatepark in him. In 2009 Mohammed Zakaria founded his own skateboard brand called ‘Philadelphia’.

After a while the NGO Make Life Skate Life reached out to him and in 2014 his dream of a skatepark in the city finally became reality. ‘We wanted to take an empty space in the city, build our skatepark and donate it back to society’, the 36-year-old passionate skater and photographer explains. The process of building the park was finished in only 18 days with the help of the local community and international volunteers. Zakaria remembers: ‘the local community was really involved in the construction, the kids would come after school and their mothers would send us food, even though they did not even know what a skatepark was at that time’. Their involvement in the creation made them take ownership of the space, which is located between Jabal Amman and Jabal Al Weibdeh, two of the oldest and most important seven hills Amman was originally built on.

The whole city becomes a playground  

Mohammed Zakaria explains that skateboarding is more than just a sport: ‘skateboarding is about reimagining’. Instead of accepting the city architect’s aim of building a bench just to sit, skateboarders take initiative and add other meanings to objects in the city by performing tricks and skating on them. ‘The whole city becomes a playground’, he says with a smile and adds ‘It is a very powerful tool to give to kids’.

7Hills Skatepark in Amman

However, the so-called 7hills skatepark is way more than just a place to skate. In a city that severely lacks public spaces, 7hills is not only a place for society to meet but has also created its own community where everyone is welcome. Starting off as a skatepark, 7hills soon turned into an NGO which offered s lessons for children of different backgrounds by collaborating with organisations working with economically disadvantaged youth, refugees or girls.

A humbling experience

The location on Prince Muhammad Street is an important joint between the affluent West of the city and East Amman which is notorious for its lower socio-economic status.  The concrete bowl of 7hills is a melting pot for those different population groups. Zakaria, director and co-founder of 7hills, describes the community of the skatepark as an actual representation of the society of Amman. ‘I do not see refugees, expats and locals of different backgrounds mixing anywhere else in the city’.  This is one of the reasons the photographer sees skateboarding as a tool for social cohesion.

‘Skateboarding is a humbling experience; the idea of falling is inherent in the sport. This creates a community of people who understand the failures and battles of learning a trick’. Getting up after failing can be a valuable skill when being a refugee in Jordan. Many refugees do not have access to work permits and must resort to the informal sector. The Coronavirus pandemic strained the Jordanian economy. It has increased the number of people falling below the poverty line as well as jeopardising food security.

A sense of community

When it comes to integration, Mohammed Zakaria sees NGOs as one of the biggest problems for refugees in Jordan. Most of them only work with specific refugee populations, categorising people based on their country of origin which separates society and fuels hate. ‘People are not really integrated because they are seen as outsiders of the society’ says Zakaria.

Another problem is the creation of dependency and the top-down approach of NGOs. At 7hills, by contrast, everyone is part of the community and has rights and responsibilities. One example for this is the Youth Leadership Programme: to receive a new board or wheels kids have to teach a certain number of classes to other kids or clean the place. This also helps break gender and societal barriers and form social cohesion as ‘Sudanese people help the expats, girls teach boys or Yemenis are working with the kids from West Amman’, explains Zakaria. ‘That way the kids turn from receivers of aid to active participants of society making the place self-sustainable’.

For the future, Zakaria has many visions. He plans to transform 7hills from an NGO to a social enterprise to be independent from donations, especially from foreign donors. Considering the opportunities the skatepark holds, the organisation wants to produce knowledge on public spaces in the form of research and development. Eventually, this could help the process of policy making and lobbying for more public spaces.

People like Mohammed Zakaria and places like 7hills give meaning to the description of Jordan as the quiet house in a noisy neighbourhood and extend the analogy to a safe and welcoming home of a large, loving family.

Hannah Lettl studies International Relations at the University of Wroclaw and has lived in Berlin, Capetown and Amman. She is especially interested in refugee related topics and international politics.

Text published as part of the Migration & Media project co-financed by Humanity in Action and the Landecker Foundation.

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