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Amman Skatepark a "Melting Pot" for Locals and Refugees

AMMAN, Jordan -- "My life here is better. I can go out without problems. There is no shelling or fighting here," said 17-year-old Ahmad Al Rayyan, perched on a colorful ramp in 7Hills Skatepark.

Rayyan, a Syrian refugee who moved to Jordan's capital city two and a half years ago, is one of the many skaters who frequent 7Hills. Located in downtown Amman's Al-Balad neighborhood, the park's bright graffiti and murals are not the only thing that make it stand out.

I had never skated before, said Ahmad Al Rayyan. But I saw them skating and I liked it, so I helped with building the park and then kept practicing. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati.

"Someone told me, it's a melting pot for all the different groups in Amman," Mohammed Zakaria, 29, co-founder of 7Hills Skatepark, told me in an interview.

The park opened last December, but the idea for it, Zakaria says, was always there. Of Palestinian descent, Zakaria was born in Qatar and moved to Amman when he was ten. After receiving a skateboard as a birthday present, he discovered skating moves and tricks online, and took to practicing on the streets of Amman.

"There weren't any spaces for this sport," Zakaria recalled. "I literally spent everyday skating in the streets, looking for a place to practice, and arguing with the police."

In March 2014, Zakaria, alongside fellow skaters both local and foreign, decided to make that idea a reality. Working with Make Life Skate Life, a nonprofit that builds skateparks in developing countries, they used an online campaign to fundraise for the park they would build in three weeks, with their own hands.

"Volunteers came from Belgium, Germany, the UK, America, the Netherlands. Everyone came together to just make this skatepark because we knew what kind of effect it could have. We would sometimes work from 9 a.m. to 4 a.m.," Zakaria said.

There's not much for kids to do. We have a problem with public spaces in Amman, Zakaria said. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati.

Located in urban Amman, the park is easily accessible to the neighborhood that is home to Jordanians as well as refugee families from Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and the Ivory Coast. The park, Zakaria said, is from and for the community, and the local children who now skate there, like Rayyan, also helped build it.

"When they work with their own hands, there is a sense of ownership. That way if someone comes and tries to vandalize, they stop him, because they feel it's their park," Zakaria said.

Skateboarding is a relatively new sport in Jordan; Zakaria is the founder of the first skateboarding company in the Middle East, Philadelphia Skateboards. Since skateboards are expensive, boards were initially donated by a school workshop in California, handed out for free to children in Amman.

"It was the first time I'd seen a queue in Amman," said Zakaria, laughing.

Mohammed Zakaria, co-founder of 7Hills Skatepark in his office in Amman. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati.

Skaters, graffiti artists, musicians and local kids with their hookahs are all at home in the park. Recently, Collateral Repair Project (CRP), an organization that provides aid and support to urban refugees in Amman, has been taking teenage refugees to the park to learn how to skate.

"Here we can change our surroundings, forget a little, laugh with our friends and have some fun," said 17-year-old Mariam, taking a break from her skating lessons in the shade. Mariam moved to Amman a year ago, fleeing her home in Mosul after the Iraqi city fell to ISIS.

Jina, Nada and Mariam fled their homes in Mosul, Iraq, after the city fell to ISIS last year. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati.

Sherif Al Sayah, a volunteer with CRP, knows all too well the struggles of being refugee. A lawyer in Syria, the fifty-year-old father of eight fled to Amman three years ago after regime airstrikes destroyed his home.

"We try to provide them with an environment that makes the burden of being a refugee even just a little bit lighter. I understand them; we have the same struggle," he said.

For Rayyan, who lives across the street from 7Hills, the park has become a hangout for him and his neighbors.

"We have so many memories here. We play here, eat here, and stay out late," said Rayyan, leaning on his best friend and neighbor, 16-year-old Palestinian Hamzah Barakat.

He's the first person I met in Amman. We're best friends. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati.

Like many of the millions of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, Rayyan's family is considering seeking asylum in Europe. Unable to obtain a work permit, his father is thinking of heading to Germany with Rayyan in the next couple of months. Since Rayyan is still 17, if they are admitted to Germany they would be able to apply for reunification with the rest of the family waiting in Amman.

Rayon is torn about the move. "Half of me wants to leave and half of me wants to stay. I want to leave because I can get a good education there, but I also want to stay. I don't want to suddenly leave behind all these people that I love. I've gotten used to being here."

Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer working in Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora.

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