Concrete Utopia: Jordan’s first skate park

A co-founder of Jordan’s first skate park says it aims to promote confidence and break down cultural barriers. Vincent Dwyer reports.

A young boy teeters on the edge of the 7hills skate ramp in central Amman. He eyes each of his friends with a mixture of pride and confidence. Without taking a breath he leans on his skateboard and drops into the ramp. Gliding seamlessly from one ramp to the other, and with his friends cheering him on, the boy seems proud of himself.

Mohammed Zakaria, the co-founder of Jordan’s first skate park, is watching from the sideline. He says the park is important to promote confidence and break down cultural barriers. “Skateboarding is about building human connections,” he says.

Having faced difficulty as a young skater, Zakaria, 30, knows how important it is to have public spaces for local youth. “I was one of the first skateboarders in Amman,” he says. “We always wanted a skate park, but we never had a place that was made for skateboarding or a place where everyone could get together without getting in trouble from security or the police or pedestrians.”

He believed Amman not only needed areas to skate but also spaces where cultural barriers could be broken down, especially among the community of refugees arriving from Syria, Iraq and Palestine.

According to the UNHCR, Jordan currently hosts the second largest number of refugees per capita in the world, behind Turkey. Data published by the World Bank shows refugees constitute 41.2 per cent of Jordan’s population.

In 2014, Zakaria was approached by Arne Hillerns, founder and executive director of an NGO called Make Life, Skate Life, which uses donations to build skate parks around the world. Hillerns told Zakaria he wanted to build a park in Amman after learning of Jordan’s recent influx of refugees.

After successfully raising US$25,000 in a crowdfunding campaign, Zakaria and a group of volunteers began construction. Zakaria says it was the sense of community that motivated him to continue with his plan, even in the face of vocal opposition from locals. “People resist what they don’t understand,” he says. “The idea of the skate park is that it’s a community space and a community place that is not owned by anyone. It’s owned by the city and it’s built by the community.”

Since opening to the public in February 2015, 7hills Skate Park has quickly become an outlet of expression for local youth. There are weekly classes for children from different backgrounds, which Zakaria says have been “very successful”.

Kas Wauters, a visiting Belgian skater who’s been running classes at 7hills for the last month, says the community has embraced the park. “It’s been fully built by the whole community,” says Wauters. “The kids helped out, older people helped out. It’s their park.”

The first class for local Sudanese youth only had a handful of students, but the number grew to over 30 the following week. “Having time for play and recreation is very important,” Zakaria says. “The kids are learning really fast and they keep coming back.”

7hills depends on the donations from outsiders who see it as more than a skate park. Zakaria says he hopes to soon work part-time at the park, as well as begin construction on a second one in Zataari, a Syrian refugee settlement in Jordan’s north.

Just as a young skater drops six-feet onto a ramp, Zakaria says he has no time for fear. It’s a timeless lesson he has learnt in his years as a skateboarder. “Skateboarding teaches you that to succeed you have to fail,” he says. “I hope the kids learn that.”

Photography by Vincent Dwyer