Following a relief fund in support of Lebanon’s skateboarding community after the 2020 Beirut Port explosion, NGO Make Life Skate Life has opened the country’s first public skate park at Beirut’s Horsh park.
Despite Lebanon having an active skateboarding scene, it has so far only existed on unsafe roadsides, abandoned plots and quiet backstreets, due to a lack of public spaces for recreational activities. The fallout of the port blast has left many of Beirut’s street corners unusable, some relegated to dumpsites for the rubble.
The newly built Snoubar Skate Park provides a free-of-charge skateboarding arena from sunrise to sunset, offering a space for the youth of Beirut to meet and practice skating safely, whilst promoting psycho-social wellbeing and community spirit.
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It’s the latest venture from the NGO, which has so far built public skate parks in 10 countries across the Middle East, South East Asia, South America and Africa. After the blast, it donated new skate gear to Lebanese youths and helped pay for damages to their families’ homes and hospital bills. They then began searching for the perfect spot for the arena.
“With the economic crisis, boards are not affordable anymore for locals, so we brought boards, shoes and protective gear in and started making connections with potential sponsors. All we needed was a piece of land available for construction,” Make Life Skate Life executive director Arne Hillerns told Al Arabiya. “There were a lot of challenges in getting things done on time due to road blocks, no fuel and electricity cuts, so it took longer than usual.
“It’s important for people to have space to play and in Beirut there is a huge lack of this. There was a big demand for a skate park – there was already a big scene but also with COVID lockdowns people were getting more interested in this,” he added. “In countries that have a difficult time, this is way to for us engage with them, create some positive news, as there can be a lot of negative news about these countries, especially the Middle East. This is a cause to notice something good for once.”Skateboards and protective gear are available for free use at the park, along with scheduled classes by local coaches. A refugee program has also been established, bringing over 40 Syrian and Palestinian children from the nearby Shatila Refugee Camp three times a week to take classes, in collaboration with NGO Just Childhood.
The Horsh is not an area they would usually enter and the program aims to integrate refugee children with locals in an organic, informal setting.
“Through skateboarding they can have a community feeling and we hope they develop their motor skills to, because most of the children we work with lack this,” Just Childhood founder Wiebke Eden-Fleig said. “They also lack the opportunity to be outside, which was one of the reasons we were so eager to provide them this chance. There is no open space in the camps, or the opportunity to be with other kids.
“I think it’s a bit strange for them but some of them have picked it up so quickly and it’s no nice to see them engaged, enthusiastic and excited to come every time,” she added. “Even some of the mothers who come with them, it’s a totally different culture for them, the skateboarders who look and dress totally different to what they’re used to. They enjoy it and some even tried to learn how to skateboard themselves.”
Eleven-year old Akram Hajj Ali said that skateboarding made him joyful and it was “a way to pass time and to use up pent up energy.”
Seven-year old Zeina had heard of skateboarding but never tried it before. “I wanted to sign up for the program because I want to have fun and it seems nice to learn,” she said.
Just Childhood hopes to later add some benches to the space and teach the kids to take care of the park and clean up after themselves.
Part of Make Life Skate Life’s mission is to show how beneficial skating can be, and to replace misconceptions that skateboarders are uncouth or antisocial.Since its first project in India in 2013, it has learned to work closely with the communities that are benefiting and to make them an integral part of the park’s future management. The local skaters who worked with the NGO in the past went on to become professional skate park builders and have now built ten big skate parks around India.
“I grew up skating at a time when skating was viewed like that [antisocial] and already this misconception is changing – we have skating in the Olympics for the first time this year – but a lot of countries do still have this idea about skaters,” Hillerns said. “It’s not hurting anyone; it’s not polluting as a form of transport and its fun and accessible. It gets people outside doing physical things.
“In more conservative countries they usually start thinking it’s something strange and not good but eventually they start to see the benefits once they understand what we’re really doing,” he added. “In Myanmar we had a group of monks who were so against the project and just a week afterwards, seeing the vibe of the place, they were fully on board, showing up in the morning and cleaning the park.”
Hillerns said that its Middle Eastern projects have been some of their most successful, with the parks in Iraq and Jordan now expanded, creating a new community of skateboarders.
Each project is tailored to the local needs, making the process unique in each location as the park must fit into the society it’s for. Over the years its learned to adapt to the challenges.
“We’ve learned to always communicate closely with the beneficiaries, to understand what their needs are. In Beirut the skate scene is the biggest we’ve worked with,” Hillerns said. “In Jordan and Iraq they were really small, but they’re so on point when it comes to teaching and have developed into their own organizations.
“In Amman it took two years before there were any official classes and in Iraq we gave them the tools to set up classes about three months after, whereas this time in Beirut we started the next day bringing kids in to learn. It’s a learning curve for sure,” he added. “In Iraq we worked with about five skaters on the project and just a couple of months afterwards there were 100 and there are now like 300, so it was really exponential.”
The NGO has yet to commit to its next project, but see Libya and Gambia as possible spots for skate parks.