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.
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.
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.