On ONEOFTHE8 we always end each episode by asking our inspirational story sharing guests what it is that has inspired them. In this written episode however, we’re going to make a complete 180 (intended) and begin with what inspires our guests Will and Denia of Athens based Free Movement Skateboarding.
Will is quick to tell us that his inspiration is one girl who, after taking part in their skateboarding sessions and going on to work as a volunteer on the team, left Greece for Belgium. Once there she replicated what she had learned from Free Movement, getting some funding and setting up her own small skateboarding project in the Brussels migrant community.
Denia’s inspiration is in the human resilience that she sees and experiences every day, and in how people - especially very young people – can show such solidarity.
Two answers that speak volumes about these two dedicated and exceptional people.
‘At the end of the day we use skateboarding, and skateboarding is important, but it’s also important that we’re bringing people together.’
So, what got each of them into skateboarding, and what brought them both to Greece?
For Will, the story starts with skateboarding, something he’s always been obsessed with, although he admits to ‘not necessarily being the best skateboarder ever’. It’s the elements of community, travelling and seeing new places, and the ‘wonderful people’ he’s met that have always drawn him in.
Loving travel, people and community, Will was appalled by what he saw happening with the refugee crisis in Greece and wanted to find a way to help.
‘I was lucky enough to combine my passion for skateboarding with trying to alleviate in some rather modest way the shocking things that are happening here, just for a few kids’
For Denia, her introduction to skateboarding was a very different one. Deeply affected by what was happening in her home country, and having always ‘struggled being a bystander’, she finished university in the UK and headed to the island of Lesbos.
‘Finishing uni in the UK and being Greek, I was also horrified by everything happening and I felt like I couldn’t just sit around - I made a decision one night and went to Lesbos’
Once there everything changed for Denia and feeling unable to leave, she began working in a youth centre in Athens. It was here that she discovered Free Movement Skateboarding, ‘a perfect project to support’.
With their work underpinned by three main aims - well-being, empowerment and social cohesion – the Free Movement Skateboarding mission is ‘empowering the local and refugee population of Athens through skateboarding’.
Driving from place to place and taking skateboarding to those who need it most, the Free Movement team reach isolated communities in the city and around the outskirts of Athens. Unpacking their portable skatepark, boards and safety gear from the Free Movement van, they run free sessions for young refugees, migrants and local Athenians, promoting inclusion and equality, as well as mental and physical well-being. A dedicated women’s program and weekly girls only sessions are also ‘run by women, for women’.
The mantra is that skateboarding is for everyone, for people all along the spectrum - refugees, low income families, the migrant community, the LGBTQ community, foster children, kids with mental health issues – all are welcome, all are embraced.
For Free Movement Skateboarding these sessions are about so much more than the kick-flips, ollies and nosegrabs. They’re about a socially levelling activity, one that dissolves the boundaries of gender, race, class, religion or ethnicity. Teaching skating skills yes, but it’s social cohesion and the integration of marginalised youth that the team strive for most.
‘That everyone feels welcome and a sense of belonging in that session is so so important to us, because we want to break down these barriers that everyone feels’
After going to Palestine and volunteering with the ‘SkatePal’ organisation back in 2016, Will and co-founder Ruby Mateja pitched their mobile skate park idea to ‘Help Refugees’, now known as ‘Choose Love’. With their support they went to Athens, built the ramps, and everything took off from there.
Growing their volunteer scheme to include 2 or 3 international volunteers every month, and local volunteers all year round, Free Movement also push to employ local people and refugees, knowing ‘their skills and experiences are invaluable in our context’.
‘We’ve got two fantastic local volunteers at the moment who are part of the skate scene in Athens, they’re a massive inspiration to the kids in sessions’
After getting things moving in March 2017 and continuing to grow steadily, Free Movement Skateboarding held over 240 free sessions in 2018, involving over 1,600 children and young people. This increased to over 320 session is 2019, involving over 2,400 participants from 30 different ethnicities living in Athens. The global pandemic may have paused things more recently, but any pause is most definitely temporary.
Through the work and dedication of people like Will, Ruby and Denia, literally thousands of young people from every background are benefitting from the power of skateboarding to teach resilience and the importance of always getting back up.
It’s only fitting that we leave the last words to Will.
‘Over all these years I’ve convinced myself that at least we can help this small amount of people, and that does make a difference’
‘I would see the kids lighting up when they were skateboarding and see this mindfulness with the skateboard and I did see a difference in those kids, so yeah, it’s great to be part of it’
You can hear more about the incredible work that the Free Movement Skateboarding team are doing in Athens by heading over to their episode on the ONEOFTHE8 podcast.
You can also visit their website and follow them on Instagram @freemovement__sb (that’s a double underscore btw).