Palestinian skateboarder represents his people with pride at Dubai Olympic qualifier

'In this sport you pick yourself up each time you fall,' says Aram Sabbah. 'In Palestine, we do this day-to-day'

Palestinian skater uses Dubai Olympic qualifier to highlight struggle of Gaza’s children

Palestinian skater uses Dubai Olympic qualifier to highlight struggle of Gaza’s children
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Hundreds of skateboarders from all over the world have been flipping and sliding at makeshift skateparks in Dubai Harbour this month. Coveted places at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris are up for grabs, but for Palestinian skater Aram Sabbah the qualifying event is much more than an opportunity for personal glory.

He is a proud flag-bearer for his nation on the international stage and a sporting symbol of solidarity with those who are suffering in war-torn Gaza. “More than the competition itself, I'm here to represent my people,” he explains to The National.

Sabbah is wearing a keffiyeh and black T-shirt emblazoned with “Palestine” in red Arabic typography. The athlete, 26, is competing this week in the Street Pro Tour Stop event, the second of two being held back-to-back in Dubai on the World Skateboarding Tour.

“I trained for this for a month and skated as much as I can,” says Sabbah, who has been skateboarding since he was 14. In Palestine, he works for UK-based non-profit organisation SkatePal, which uses the sport as a tool to spread the message of happiness and hope.

“Skateboarding gives you resilience and motivation” he explains. “You pick yourself up each time you fall. In Palestine, we do this day-to-day.

“It's a good way to express both sadness and joy, and it creates a safe space for everyone, especially children, so they can enjoy and have an almost-normal life.”

My dream is for Palestinian kids to have a fair life that is also honest and humane
Aram Sabbah, Palestinian skateboarder

Sabbah is driven to continue skateboarding because of his work with young Palestinians. “What motivates me is seeing the kids pick up a board,” he adds.

Aside from introducing children to the thrills of the sport, Sabbah and the organisation have built skateparks across the country, mainly in the West Bank.

“In Palestine, there were a lack of parks in general. There were almost none, actually. These skateparks also serve as spaces for families and children,” he says.

Since the Israel-Gaza war broke out last October, Sabbah confirms that skateboarding has “obviously stopped”.

He explains: “Our work is mainly based in the West Bank, but there are skateboarders in Gaza as well, like Rajab Al Reefi. He is struggling now; him and his family can barely find food. That's why I'm here – to represent him and every other Palestinian.

“Even in the West Bank, we are affected by this war. It's a day-to-day struggle. You can't enjoy many things. Because we are separated from Gaza, we feel helpless. We can't do anything.”

He says some young people don't want to skateboard any more “because we feel guilty for living and enjoying … nobody wants to enjoy the privilege of skateboarding any more”.

Sabbah carries this sentiment with him in Dubai this week, using the sport to deliver a message. “I'm here to show other people that they can relate to us, instead of looking at us as just numbers,” he says.

The competitions have brought together more than 400 skateboarders from 65 countries, and Sabbah says it's important that fellow competitors see Palestinians as equals.

“I tell them I'm from Palestine, but they go like 'Pakistan'. I always have to explain where I'm from. I met some Malaysian skateboarders and they couldn't believe there are Palestinian skateboarders here.”

He says being in Dubai still sparks feelings of guilt. “But I try to always remember my goal,” he says. “Just being here, no matter the results. They call my name 'Aram Sabbah from Palestine'. That already means a lot.”

Sabbah joins nine other Arab skaters at this week's competition. Among them is Jordanian representative Abdul Hakeem Barakat, who also sees the event as an “opportunity to send a message to the world.”

Barakat says: “We have a platform and an opportunity to send a message. I have been a skateboarder for eight years now and I've been using skateboarding to spread joy and happiness among children, especially refugees, whether they are Palestinians, Syrians Iraqis or Somalians.”

Both skateboarders are passionate about introducing more Arab children to the joys of a sport that has changed their lives.

Asked what else he wants to achieve in his career, Sabbah replies: “To continue skateboarding and to build more parks in the West Bank and all over the world, really. To have more opportunities for the children, and to be able to get to a point in my life where I can pave the way for future generations.

“My dream is for Palestinian kids to have a fair life that is also honest and humane,” he says. “I want the fire and war to cease. Stop the massacre. Stop the genocide.”

Updated: March 05, 2024, 12:46 PM