Jordan's 7Hills street project for young refugees wins top Sharjah award

Ruler of Sharjah gives the award to skateboarding programme that gives young people a sense of belonging

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A skateboarding project that helps to give young displaced people a feeling of community has won a top award in Sharjah.

Jordan’s 7Hills for Social Development won the Sharjah International Award for Refugee Advocacy and Support on Monday.

Sheikh Dr Sultan Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, honoured Mohammed Zakaria, 36, the founder of the project at the awards ceremony. He received the Dh500,000 prize money.

The 7Hills non-profit project is the brainchild of Mr Zakaria, who is a skateboarder and a photographer. He started one of the first skateboard companies in the region with the aim of helping young refugees socialise and interact with each other.

Sheikh Sultan bin Ahmed bin Sultan Al Qasimi, Deputy Ruler of Sharjah, and The Big Heart Foundation (TBHF) humanitarian envoy; Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, wife of the Ruler of Sharjah and chairwoman of TBHF, and a UNHCR advocate for refugee children, were also present at the ceremony.

How it all started

Make Life Skate Life, a company in Germany that builds such parks for refugees across the world, contacted Mr Zakaria, offering to help build a skate park in Jordan.

“The idea was circulating among the skating community in Jordan because we needed a space for us,” Mr Zakarai told The National.

“It just happened that I was at the right place at the right time to open this skate park, not just for skaters but for everyone.”

The journey to build the park started in 2014, in Amman, a place that lacks open spaces.

With the help of friends, Make Life Skate Life, Philadelphia Skateboards, and the Greater Amman Municipality, the project raised more than $20,000 through an online crowdfunding campaign and the park was built in 2016 in central Amman.

It took about six months to get the paperwork done at the municipal department and three weeks to transform the abandoned area into a fully equipped 650-square-metre skateboarding park.

The park is run by a group of volunteers who provide space for skaters and deprived children and young people.

Those aged between 10 and 25 from refugee camps and Syrian, Iraqi and other communities that live in Jordan come to the park.

The park has also launched a youth leadership programme to teach crafts and other skills to young people.

Last year, their programmes attracted more than 2,000.

“This programme was launched after we noticed that young people were dependent on us because we used to give away skates for free,” Mr Zakaria said.

“So we thought of involving them in the process by allowing them to teach children how to skate in return for free skates.”

The foundation then expanded and opened Al Raseef 153 [Pavement 153] in 2019, which is located opposite the skate park.

Al Raseef 153 provides leadership training and courses to young refugees in Jordan.

The park also launched a youth leadership programme to teach crafts and other skills to young people. Photo: 7Hills

Every year, more than 250 young participants attend the courses, of which 50 per cent are refugees. They are taught leadership and vocational skills at the creative youth hub.

Ms Zakaria said 7Hills will use the prize money to continue what it is doing and start new programmes.

“One of the ideas is that we get a bus so that we can reach out to those who can't come to our skating park,” he said.

We welcome children from the Gaza refugee, one of the 10 officially recognised UNRWA Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan.

They also sometimes work with people in Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan that is the world’s largest for displaced Syrians.

Mr Zakaria said they also recently opened a second skate park in Al Quwasimah area, in greater Amman, but have not yet started giving lessons to children.

He said running the skatepark comes with its challenges but “in skating, we fall more than we stand on our feet so we learn no matter what. Problems cannot put us down.”

The Sharjah award for supporting refugees

The award aims to highlight and support efforts and initiatives which work to improve the lives of millions of individuals and families who have been displaced from their homes due to natural disasters or war.

It focuses on bringing increased awareness to refugee issues within the Middle East, Africa, and Asia regions while recognising the organisation supporting the forcibly displaced.

This year's award to 7Hills recognises its role in facilitating the integration of young refugees and fulfilling their emotional and psychological needs, which are just as important as their requirements in food, health, and shelter.

Refugees around the world

The world is witnessing an unprecedented increase in the number of people forced to flee their homes, which surpassed 100 million as of May 2022.

According to 2021 statistics, the Mena region is home to nearly 17 million refugees — 17 per cent of the global figures.

UN figures show that Jordan hosts 760,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR.

Of those, about 670,000 are from Syria, making Jordan the number two host of Syrian refugees per capita globally, just behind Lebanon.

Major refugee crises of 2021 — in pictures

Updated: June 28, 2022, 3:21 AM