Alexander Cave
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Nowhere is the global refugee crisis more visible than in Athens.

It doesn’t take long to find political graffiti in a city of 3.75 million that calls itself home to large groups of anarchists, nationalists and communists. The vibe is chaotic and in a way, contradictory. Official estimates claim Athens is home to roughly 40,000 refugees, however many believe this number to be higher.

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Just 15 minutes outside downtown Athens, we arrive at Eleonas camp.

As we pull up, our van is clamored by dozens of children. They know why we’re here, and they’re excited to spend the next hour skating up and down the half-dozen homemade ramps we’ve brought along.

In October 2016, co-founders Ruby Mateja & Will Ascott met while volunteering with SkatePal, a skate NGO building skate parks in the West Bank. Here they discovered the power skateboarding has to enable disadvantaged youth. Shortly after their experience in Palestine, Ruby & Will arrived in Athens, launching Free Movement Skateboarding to aid the region’s growing refugee population.

At first, their entire operation could fit in the back of a van; a dozen skateboards, helmets, pads, and some wooden ramps. But a year later, FMS led a fundraising effort to build a DIY concrete park less than a kilometer from one of Athens largest refugee camps.

These young people have been through trauma and loss at a young age and need a focused mindful release
— Will Ascott, Free Movement Skateboarding co-founder
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Meet Nasim.

12 years old, from Afghanistan. When asked what she thinks about when skating, she says “Nothing, I think about nothing”. For most of these kids, the ability to clear their head allows them to become better students and grow into more responsible adults.

Skateboarding is largely male dominated in the West, but Free Movement Skateboarding sees this as an opportunity to present the culture in a non-gendered activity. In addition to co-founder Ruby and several talented instructors, 45% of their participants are female. I was lucky enough to sit in one of their Wednesday night girls-only sessions at their DIY park Souzy Tros, and saw firsthand how skating can improve the lives of these women.

Free Movement doesn’t just work to change skateboard culture, but the dynamics in these children’s lives. Many of the girls who attend Free Movement’s classes come from socially conservative families, many of which discourage them from participating in physical activity or mingling in mixed-sex groups. After a year in operation, Ascott found that female participants progressed more when they were immersed in a group of fellow girl skaters. This realization is what started the Wednesday night girls sessions at Souzy Tros, a signature feature of their program.

But in order to serve as many refugees as possible, Free Movement Skateboarding doesn’t restrict it’s work to the skatepark. Several times a week Will Ascott & his crew of instructors load up the van and host classes at various parks around the city. Due to the abundance of refugee-oriented NGOs scattered around Athens, the only limit for Free Movement is the amount of daylight in a day.

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Twice a week, Free Movement hosts classes in the Elonas camp, one of the largest refugee camps in the country. When we arrive, kids mob the van, clamoring for skateboards. These bi-weekly classes give the children an opportunity to escape the reality of their status, a rare moment of mental clarity. As I spend the next hour chasing down kids & nagging them to put on their helmet, I can’t help but see a piece of myself. Despite the tumultuous situation these children are stuck in: unable to return home while unable to establish a normal life in Greece, they’re no different than children skateboarding in San Diego.

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Meet Will.

Co-founder of Free Movement Skateboarding.

Souzy Tros, Free Movement Skateboarding’s DIY skatepark.

Souzy Tros, Free Movement Skateboarding’s DIY skatepark.

Most hobbies have a way of bringing people together, but those hobbies are how we differentiate ourselves. A chef in Mexico can certainly relate with a chef in France, but they use ingredients, techniques and culinary history to differentiate their abilities.

But skateboarding feels different. As I’m sitting with one young refugee, it struck me at how skateboarding is a culture you buy into. Nevermind the hundreds of Zumiez stores worldwide, Ryan Sheckler’s failed reality TV show, or the billon dollar industry profiting off skateboarding’s “bad boy” imagery. Here we are, a suburban-raised 31 year old photographer and a 15 year old from Nigeria, bonding over our love for Geoff Rowley while ranking our favorite skate videos.

One of Free Movement’s onsite sessions.

One of Free Movement’s onsite sessions.

On my last day in Athens, Free Movement Skateboarding hosted two sessions at their Souzy Tros skatepark, including one “girls-only” session. It was on this final day when I discovered how effective these sessions were for maintaining women participation in their program. After their first year, FMS realized their female participants were more likely to continue skating if they had a group of other teenage girls to support each other.

To cap off a successful week, we headed to Latraac, a local skater-owned bar complete with a bowl and flood lights so skating can continue after dark.

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