It is late in the afternoon on a hot summer's day in Amman and Abdul Hakeem Barakat, 17, weaves his skateboard around moving cars with ease as they slow down ahead of traffic lights. Manoeuvring himself on the board is an easy feat for the competent skater, despite the busy road he has to contend with, as he makes his way to 7Hills Skatepark in Jordan's capital.
Climbing the small hill to the skate bowl at the top of the park, Barakat joins other skateboarders sitting on a wooden bench taking refuge in the shade of a tree.
It took volunteers fewer than two weeks to build 7Hills Skatepark in 2014. The aim of the project has been to provide a tolerant and inclusive space for Amman's diverse communities, no matter people's background. Today, around 200 young people – boys and girls – use the park each week, throughout the summer. Those numbers are made up of refugees predominantly from Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Palestine, as well as locals such as Barakat.
Why is 7Hills skatepark so popular?
It is clear how valued the facility is as children of all ages and nationalities flock to the park to spend the next few hours whizzing around the graffitied skate bowl. But the vision is bigger than the already commendable feat the 7Hills team has accomplished so far in creating a tolerant space – the dream is to spread skateboarding culture and its inclusivity throughout the city.
Looking every bit the pro, Barakat's white ankle socks are pulled up high and the battered-looking yellow and white shoes he wears have clearly felt the brunt of his enthusiasm for skating.
He has been involved with the skatepark community from the beginning and is now a supervisor. Living around the corner, Barakat first became curious when he spotted construction work getting under way and immediately was drawn into the project. The teenager has hopes of heading to Germany after he finishes school next year.
“I’m here four days a week. My parents supported my skateboarding initially but now that they have difficulty in keeping me away from the park, they’re less keen on it these days,” says Barakat. “Skateboarding is fun and challenging and something you can work at and get better at.”
More than just skateboarding: The park's youth leaders are here to help
Over the past five years, as 7Hills has evolved, Barakat has played a crucial role in the expansion of the park's services and aspirations to nurture a skating culture across the wider city. A youth leadership programme was launched in 2016, through which the more experienced skateboarders teach beginners in exchange for equipment.
Throughout the summer, classes are held five days a week. These are made possible by collaborations between the skatepark and local partners who work together to provide transportation to 7Hills for children living in the Jerash refugee camp outside the city, known locally as the Gaza Camp.
Each week "street missions", headed up by youth leaders such as Barakat, are carried out in different neighbourhoods. These missions involve a group of 7Hills skateboarders skating through different communities as a way to raise awareness about the sport and encourage other people to get involved. The concept of the sport is so new in Jordan that many people have little understanding and the groups are often asked lots of questions.
Amman's journey to a skateboarder-friendly city
The group's central aim continues to be inclusivity. The founder of 7Hills Skatepark, Mohammad Zakaria, is going a step further. He is working with the Greater Amman Municipality to create a skateboarder-friendly city. Talks are under way for the 7Hills team to implement a skate programme at an unused skate bowl located in the municipality-owned King Abdullah II park in east Amman – an area of the city that suffers the most from a lack of services.
"Space in Amman is very discriminating; if you don't look a certain way, behave in a certain way, then you're not welcome in many places. But 7Hills is open and free to everyone," Zakaria tells The National. "Our big vision is renovating space in Amman – 30 per cent dedicated to skateboarding would be a good amount."
He is currently spending time in the Swedish city of Malmo – a place that has a skateboarding school, a skate ambassador within the municipality and a skateboard-friendly approach to city planning that is influencing urban planners around the globe – with 7Hills programme director Kas Wauters from Belgium. "We're here to develop our strategy for Amman and learn how we can turn our city into a skater-friendly one – how we can work with the municipality and urban planners," he says.
As part of their trip, the pair attended the skateboarding conference Pushing Boarders last month, which had a significant focus on the mental health benefits that skateboarding can offer. "Having an impact on public space is a grand idea and is going to take a while but we've seen the change this facility has created and we want to keep pushing," says Zakaria.
The park itself has evolved into an integral community venue. “We’ve built a basketball court and we still have a lot of space to play with. Families spend their weekends there, using it as a picnic space while the kids are skating. We’re now developing park furniture, such as benches, with the kids,” he says.
'7Hills – The Film': Coming soon to a film festival near you
Zakaria also has plans to open a skateboarding shop – it would be the first in Jordan. He is keen to raise the skatepark's profile and highlight the work the team is doing, so the release of independent documentary 7Hills – The Film comes at a good time.
American filmmaker Jesse Locke of Unlocked Films is behind the movie, which has been submitted to 23 film festivals around the world. Locke was first introduced to the skatepark on a visit to Jordan two years ago. It was an introduction that left an impression and, in August last year, he returned to Amman to film the documentary. "What really touched me was that all of these kids had lost everything from their lives. As an American I can't even begin to relate to that or what they went through," Locke says. "It was amazing to see the kids smiling and how much joy this park brings them."
Raising the finance needed for the film was tough. Oregon NGO Rise Up International donated $1,500 (Dh5,509), while $2,500 was raised through a GoFundMe page, and the film was then awarded $1,000 through the Muse Maker Grant. However, the total cost came to $50,000, which meant Locke footed most of the bill out of his own pocket. "I was doing it no matter what. Obviously we want the film to have as much of an impact as possible and I think it's really important to get it out to the youth. It's just got into the San Pedro International Film Festival in LA, so hopefully this is the beginning of some momentum behind the film."
Zakaria says the film highlights some important points while bringing attention to the vision the team at 7Hills are trying to achieve. "It's not only a space for kids to skate, it's an inclusive space for the community in a city that is seriously lacking in similar initiatives. It's also a proper representation of the social fabric of the city."