Volunteering at skate aid organisations with Amber Edmondson

You’ve probably heard of skate aid organizations like SkatePal, Make Life Skate Life, and Free Movement Skateboarding, but have you ever seriously considered applying to volunteer with one of them? Have you thought about the details of living in Palestine, Iraqi Kurdistan, or Athens for a month? Maybe you like the idea, but you’re worried about getting the time off work, or not being a good enough skater, or not knowing enough about the country in which you might like to volunteer. Maybe you’re worried about safety. Perhaps you’d just like to chat with someone who has done it before and can answer all your questions.

Two and a half years ago Amber Edmondson was just like you. She was working a marketing job in Manchester and feeling the old professional ennui with which so many adults are familiar. She had recently gotten back into skating after a 14-year hiatus and happened, by chance, to attend a SkatePal fundraiser at a local bar. Mere months later, she had quit her job and been accepted to volunteer in Asira Ash-Shamaliya, Palestine, for eight weeks. Since then, she has volunteered at the Suli Skatepark in Iraqi Kurdistan, moved to Athens to work full-time for Free Movement Skateboarding, returned to Asira for a month, and co-founded the non-profit Women Skate the World.

I met Amber in Asira in March. As I heard more and more about her experiences with skate aid organizations, the same questions kept popping up in my mind: How did she take that leap of faith? How did she abandon security in order to pursue more meaningful work? How did she overcome all the doubts that must have been plaguing her? Her answer was always the same: “I just went for it. If I can do it, anyone can.”

Interview by Max Harrison-Caldwell

Tell me about yourself and how you got involved in skate aid work.
I’m Amber, I’m 29, I get sunburned really easily, and I can’t eat onions (laughs). I got involved in skate aid work originally through volunteering with Skate Pal. I’d started going to girls’ night in Manchester at Project Skatepark. It was the first time I’d gotten on a skateboard in 14 years and it felt fucking amazing. The skateboarding was amazing, but it was having this space to fail and it not matter.

I think that’s first what really got me thinking about what skateboarding is capable of, more than just as an act in itself. Then a mate said to me, “Hey, wanna come to this thing on Thursday? It’s a thing for SkatePal.” We watched Epicly Palestine’d and the screen was really high above us at the bar and we were all looking at it with crooked necks and I remember just watching this thing and being like, I have to go there. I applied and I remember vividly, thinking, there’s no way Charlie (Davis, SkatePal founder and executive director) is gonna accept me, I’m not a good enough skateboarder. I can drop in and I can ollie but I can’t really do anything else. And he said yeah, I’ll put you down for April and May. So it was decided that I was gonna quit my job and go and do that. And that was the beginning of everything.

What’s Women Skate the World?
Women Skate the World is on a mission to promote inclusive skateboarding, and that’s through encouraging female volunteers and encouraging women to skate.

Nanja (Women Skate the World co-founder) is a woman that I met when she was my roommate at Skate Pal last year. We were talking about applying for Skate Pal and how stoked we were to be here (in Palestine) and how we felt like we’d sort of been given a chance, because we weren’t good skaters. Charlie had said, “Yeah we really struggle to get women out here.” Talking to other women who had done SkatePal or were thinking about it, it became clear that we all thought we weren’t good enough and we weren’t needed. And that’s not on SkatePal, that’s on all of skating and our own bullshit fears and everything. It’s impostor syndrome, you know? But it became obvious that we’d both been thinking that and we both had concerns about safety. Like, Charlie and Theo (Krish, SkatePal co-director) are diamond guys and they’d said it’s safe, but is it safe for women? Is it safe to walk around at night? It just became clear that it would be really cool to have advice from other women who had been here, and if that was the case here, it was probably the case at other projects.

From being here, it is safe, I am good enough, and I’m a good teacher — you don’t need to be an amazing skateboarder to help these kids. I help Sedra with stuff I can’t do all the time. She finds it hilarious. Her favorite thing to do after I’ve been helping her with something for ages is to say, “Now you.” She knows I can’t do it. Or she’ll remind me of times I’ve tried to do it and fallen, which is quite often. So yeah, it’s a myth that you’re not good enough to be here. If you feel comfortable on a board — you probably don’t even need to be able to drop in — you can make a big difference here.

The other thing we learned from being here is that just being in the park can make a difference. When we arrived in April, the two women that were supposed to be here in March had dropped out last minute so there hadn’t been any girls in the park. And when we started going to the park, more girls would come, or they would be playing on the play park (playground) next to it and they would come and have a go. There was a bit of overlap with the (March) volunteers and they were saying, “We didn’t get this many girls coming when you guys weren’t here.” Even in the street when we would be walking in the village and the men are shaking the men’s hands, we’d go and talk to the women and they’d be shaking our hands and the male volunteers who had been here were actually saying, “Whoa, I’ve never seen that.” Because the women feel like they can’t talk to them or don’t feel comfortable talking to them.

(Having women in the park) makes it a space that’s not just for men. It gives girls who want to have a go on a skateboard a woman to look at who is on a skateboard so they can think, “I could do that.” I think some of the older girls aren’t comfortable taking hands from guys (holding hands when learning to drop in, etc.) so I think it keeps that door open for them just a little bit longer. And I think it just makes it a less intimidating place.

How did you decide to volunteer at the Suli Skatepark in Iraqi Kurdistan?
Once I was in Palestine, it just seemed obvious to me that this was what I wanted to be doing, so I decided to see if I could push my savings a little more. I reached out to Make Life Skate Life, who were building the park in Slemani (Kurdistan) while I was in Palestine. I wanted to be part of it but didn’t know if I was good enough. What can I offer? These guys really know what they’re doing — they really know aid work and they really know skateboarding. And I kind of don’t know much about either. But when I applied for Kurdistan I was told there would be other volunteers and accomodation and a volunteer coordinator. And the day before I flew from Tel Aviv I was told that actually none of that was going to be in place, and that they apologised and understood if I didn’t want to go. And, as you know, I went. So being there on my own and running a park four hours a day, every day, for a month… I don’t want to say that because I did that I can do anything, but it was a scary decision to make and it built my confidence to think, maybe I can do this.

It also made me realise that the people that were my heroes… When we had the first Skype with Make Life Skate Life, they really wanted Women Skate the World to go and do a women’s program, and Nanja and I were sitting next to each other, sort of hitting each other’s legs, because they wanted us and we were like, “Oh my god!” It was exciting because they had so many projects around the world and, other than Skateistan (who don’t take any volunteers anymore), these were the guys. These were the people I wanted to be like, that were doing so much good. And when I got there, it wasn’t the case.

They’d built a park, but it had been left in an unsafe condition. The park is slightly downhill and it culminates in a big quarterpipe and just behind that is the shipping container with all the boards and stuff. That’s where the boards are, so that’s where the kids congregate. So you have this quarterpipe that’s at the bottom of this small hill and you have skateboards just flying at the spot where the kids line up. While I was there, we had a few people get hit in the back and the shoulders. Luckily nobody got hit in the head but it’s only a matter of time. That’s just down to luck and the height of the people that got hit. The other thing was that there was very loose soil around the park and the metal reinforcements stuck out of the cement into it. Of course the skateboards go off into the dirt and the dirt’s loose and the kids go to retrieve the boards and they’re stepping between these metal supports and it’s just glaringly obvious that it’s unsafe. It just didn’t make sense.

Did they not have time to finish the park? Why were there still exposed iron rods?
I spoke to Arne (Hillerns, Make Life Skate Life founder) about it and he said, “Hey, we had a month. Would you rather I built this park and said no, you can’t actually skate on it?” And I was like, if you can build a skatepark in a month, how long is it gonna take you to build a fence so that flying boards won’t hit kids? If you’ve got a visa for 30 days, build a park that you know you can get done in three weeks. Standard planning — you have a contingency.

If they decided that that was finished and it was a good enough job, shame on them. If they tried to finish and couldn’t, plan better. This was not their first skatepark. Don’t cram in half a park or a park that’s skateable but isn’t necessarily safe so that you can say, “We’ve built this many parks around the world.”

I said look, it’s not safe here [at the skatepark], I’ve had to find my own accommodation. I take responsibility for the fact that I made the decision to go there, but when I said, “It’s important that you take care of your volunteers,” they said, “Well, the visas are only for a month. We thought that you understood.”

Can you tell me about the responsibility of skate aid organisations beyond just building a park?
I don’t think it’s about after the skatepark’s built; I think the responsibility begins before that. I think they have a responsibility to understand the community, discuss with the community, find out if it’s right for them, if it’s something that they want. I also think that the skatepark build, if it is decided that it should go ahead, should be about teaching, not about skating necessarily, especially if you’re building it somewhere that doesn’t have a skate scene or access to skateboards. Don’t build it for skilled skaters, build it for people learning and have a space where you can learn to push and a mellow bank where you can learn to kickturn and that kind of stuff. Have a little quarterpipe and then a slightly bigger thing that you can drop in on. And think about whether it’s going downhill or not, think about the flow of the park.

I’m really keen to get involved in skatepark builds, not as a builder or a designer but as a teacher. You might be an amazing skater and designer and builder but I’ve taught to so many different kids in so many different spaces and I’ve learned what works, what kids need. I can see, when there’s a kid at a certain level, what they need. And that’s something that’s not always at the forefront of your mind if you’re an amazing skater. It’s hard for me to remember what I didn’t know before I came to Palestine. Sometimes when I’m teaching, I skate switch so I can feel what it’s like to not be comfortable on the board, and that sort of keeps you grounded. It’s difficult to remember what it’s like to not know how to skate.

Another thing is that a skatepark should be built as a community space, it should not just be built for skaters. It should have a play park. That is one of the best things about the park in Asira, is that there’s a play park and that brings whole families and that brings women who bring their kids. It means that (the skatepark) isn’t this other, foreign, isolated thing that’s masculine and for these white people… Even if they’re not interested, they’re seeing it, and it’s not something where rumors start. It becomes a lot more accessible and a lot more visible to the community. And it’s not selfish — you wanna build a skatepark because you like skateboarding but also, kids like playing, so build a play park. And even for those teenage skaters, how much easier is it to pester your mum to drive you to the skatepark if she can also get rid of your little brother and sister for half an hour on the swings? Don’t be selfish with this shit (laughs).

I don’t think that anyone should be building anything unless they’re willing to either commit six months themselves or they have an agreement with a partner organisation that is going to stay and do skate programming for six months.

Skate programming meaning offering classes and providing equipment?
Yeah, making it sustainable. Making sure the people who you’ve built this park for have fucking skateboards, firstly. And maybe you’ve got some local skaters who can reach out to you and say, “Hey we need more skateboards,” or, “Part of what you built is falling apart and you’ve got to come sort this out,” or, “This isn’t really safe,” or even, “We didn’t expect the space to be used that way but what’s become really clear is that actually kids love climbing up this big quarterpipe and on the other side of it is a big drop, so we could really use a fence there.” As skaters should know, spaces are always gonna be used in ways you don’t expect, so building it and fucking off is not good enough. I do think that it should be sustainable. I don’t think that it should always rely on foreign support, but if you build a skatepark somewhere the quickest you can have it up, running, and hand it over to locals to continue that work is six months. And six months is fucking unlikely.

What’s Free Movement, and what’s your role there?
Free Movement Skateboarding is a youth organisation that uses skateboarding to engage young people in refugee communities and the local Athenian community. We have a few different things that we do: we do sessions in refugee camps that are closed off to the public, we do sessions in public places where we’ll try to get that integration going, and we have a little private space called Souzy Tros which is in an industrial space near one of the refugee camps and has a little DIY skatepark in it. That allows us to do a lot more developmental stuff. We have maybe ten kids there and we see them every week so we get more one-on-one with them, not just about skateboarding but about their behavior and coping strategies and trying to encourage them to talk about how they feel and listening to them.

I run Free Movement with three other people and Will [Ascott], who’s taking a break at the moment, and I run their volunteer program and their women’s program. But we all just do whatever we can [laughs]. I used to work in marketing and do projects and deadlines and shit so I make sure everybody’s talking to each other and we’ve got funding streams and we’re saying the right things to our funders and we’ve got an online presence. Just a lot of the organizational stuff, mainly. And then we’ve got Zelia who does the educational stuff because she’s a phenomenal teacher. It’s like watching a magician. I’ve never seen anybody command kids’ attention in such an amazing way.

Does Free Movement offer classes other than the skate lessons?
Yeah, we have a women’s program once a week on Fridays. It’s an hour of some kind of lesson or activity. We always try to have some sort of learning element, so even if we’re doing art, what we’re doing is some kind of recycling thing. So what we’re doing is making use of the relationship we have with these girls. We’re not these volunteers they have in the camp that are there for two or three weeks at a time and then go. We’re consistent, we kind of tell them off and there’s discipline but we’re also doing this cool thing with them so there’s a bit more of a friendship than a straight up maths teacher thing.

And also, skateboarding is fucking scary — we’re the ones that are encouraging them and holding their hands and catching them when they fall and wiping their bloody knees if they get scrapes and what have you. That builds a level of trust so naturally that then allows us to talk to them about other scary things. Being a teenage girl is scary, let alone being a teenage refugee. Getting your period, finding out that at some point blood is gonna start coming out of you once a month, what the fuck!? That terrified me for ages! Trying to have a conversation with them where we say, “Hey, you know with these men in the camp that come up to you and kiss you on the cheek because they know your dad and you hate it, you can say no, you know?” But still, that’s fucking scary. I hate it when men come and assume they can kiss me on the face, and I’m fucking 29.

We try to talk to them about body boundaries and healthy relationships and adolescence and gender equality and discrimination and respect and diversity and things that are coming up for them. As people who are living in refugee camps, as girls and as women. I’m not the fucking oracle, I don’t have all the answers, I’m not pretending to be, but I am trying to create a space where we can discuss what they think about the fascists that they’ve heard a lot about that they’re scared of, and what that word means. A lot of times they know to be scared of something but don’t know what it means. It came up with Atena and the rape thing. That floored us. We were not ready for that. We just try to create a space where they can talk about race and religion and things where other people might say, “Don’t bring it up because you’ll start an argument or you’ll say something wrong.” If they can talk about it and ask questions I think they’ll be better off for it.

Do you think they’re more into these lessons and discussions because you have this big-sister-type relationship from teaching them skating?
Yeah, for sure. I think that this comes down to trust. When it comes to that, “Sana, I need you to sit down and do this, and then we’re gonna skateboard,” they are more likely to listen to you. There are other things like, you tell them stuff on a skateboard like, “Listen, I know you’re scared. You need to lean forward.” They fall off. “It’s because you didn’t lean forward. Your body needs to be forward.” And then they do it, and they don’t fall, and then they remember that you were fucking right (laughs). So then when you say, “I know you don’t want to do this, but let’s just do this,” you get more of a, “Yeah, alright,” because you were right that one time with the skateboarding thing.

Maybe I’m being naive but I do think that they respect us, and maybe it’s just because we’ve been hanging around long enough (we’ve been with them for a year and a half) but they tend to listen to us. Sometimes when the kids are bad they’re not allowed to come skateboarding and the people at the camp will ask us to have a word with them about the way they treat the camp volunteers, because, as they say, “They respect you more than they respect us.” And I do think that part of that is consistency, but part of it is trust.

It seems like many people in the West have stopped paying attention to the refugee crisis now that it’s no longer in the news all the time. Can you update us? What countries do the refugees you work with come from? What are the conditions in the camps in Athens?
There are currently an estimated 65,000 refugees in Greece. We teach kids from all over the place. Off the top of my head, and I’m definitely gonna forget somewhere, we have kids from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Palestine, Egypt, Eritrea, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq… all over. Most of the world, seriously. The conditions vary. The camps that are good have containers, kind of like a shipping container, and it has a kind of living room with a bit of a kitchen and a bedroom. And it’s got heaters and air conditioning and running water and a bathroom. One of the main camps we work in has a rule: if you’re four people or less, you share with another family, and if you’re five or more you get your own container. The kids are in school and have activities, skateboarding is one of those activities, it’s in the center of Athens. Great.

Some of the other camps that we work in are an hour outside of Athens, not near any public transportation, not easily accessible. The kids aren’t in school and don’t have many activities — we’re one of the only children’s activities there. There are other camps that have no childcare, no safeguarding. A Safe Zone is an area inside a refugee camp for unaccompanied minors. So if you imagine a refugee camp, it’s got barbed wire and all the security, and then it has an extra level of security inside for unaccompanied minors. And there are camps where the unaccompanied minors are in amongst everybody else and are just completely vulnerable to any of the adults that are in that camp.

All the camps in Athens have running water but not in the islands. On Lesbos, one of the camps (Moria) has a capacity of 3100 so that it is safe. If there are 3100 people or fewer everyone has safe and healthy access to running water and food. That camp currently has over 5000 people in it, and it had 9000 at the end of last year before the government moved 4000 people to the mainland. It’s fucking horrific. That’s not what we do. We’re on the development side. There are a lot of steps when it comes to aid work with refugees. One of them is pulling people out of the water, and another is getting them to dry land, and another is getting them to some kind of shelter, and another is getting them any medication they need, and another is making sure that they get food, and way way way down the line is what we do, which is trying to get these kids into something consistent, and some kind of developmental routine. But it relies on somebody pulling people out of the water and all those people working down that line.

Have you ever been accused of being a white saviour? How does your own identity as a white Western person factor into what you do? Any specific situations where you’ve really had to interrogate your own privilege or your motivations for doing aid work?
No, I’ve not been accused of that to my face. Is it something I think about? Yes. Is it something I think I should be aware of? Yes. I think about that shit all the time. I think the reason I’m doing (aid work) is because I can’t not do anything.

I think one of the main things that I try to do is just listen. One, I’m not gonna go do something that I don’t believe in and don’t know about. I know about skateboarding and I know about teaching so I’m gonna always do something around teaching. The main thing that I try to do is just be there for these girls on a human level and listen to what they’re saying, and that means listening to stuff that is really hard to hear and listening to their stories about their journeys.

If you told me about a problem you were having, my reaction would be to say, “Oh, that’s awful!” and then you know I’m empathising with you. But with these kids, they might think that they’ve upset me and they shouldn’t talk about it. And if they want to talk about it, they should talk about it. And considering that all of this bullshit that we’re seeing in all of these countries is exacerbated or being ignored by white privilege, and capitalism in the Western world and all that, the least I can do is shut up and listen, and not let the fact that it’s gonna upset me stand in the way. At that point it doesn’t matter who I am, it just matters that somebody is there listening to them.

How do you talk about your work without celebrating yourself?
I was just having this conversation. Parts of your life have to be sacrificed when you do stuff like this. So in Palestine and when I was out in Kurdistan, I couldn’t go out or date or get laid. I couldn’t get any female attention. And that was kind of alright because when I did get back to Manchester I could be like, “Yeah, I’ve just been in Palestine teaching skateboarding. Oh, your phone number? Lovely!” (laughs). I was proud of what I’d been doing, and felt like I’d earned the right to talk about it. And I noticed that Will (Ascott), whenever anyone asks what he does, just says, “I do some youth work.” And then maybe they’ll pry and maybe he’ll say, “Just with skateboarding.” He plays it down more than anyone I’ve ever seen. And I realised why, because you go through this thing where you realise, I teach kids skateboarding. It’s not difficult. It’s a dream job. And I don’t know if I’m helping a lot, but at least with five kids, I’ve got a really good relationship with them and if they enjoy hanging out with me a fraction of how much I enjoy hanging out with them, I’m bringing something. And other than that, everything around it is ego.

Have you seen volunteers with impure motives? What are some good and bad reasons to come volunteer?
We’ve been really lucky with our volunteer scheme. We did only launch it in October so I don’t have the width and breadth that SkatePal does, by any means. In Athens in general, not with Free Movement volunteers, you see some… not impure motives, because I think the intentions are good in their own way, but just stuff like, “I’m gonna go meet my refugee friend.” Just say he’s your friend mate. Or people that can spend a month in Palestine and then be like, “I think I’m gonna travel around Israel for a bit.” It’s just like… (deep sigh). If you can be here for a month and listen to people and look around and then go to Israel, nothing I say is gonna make a difference. But yeah, and then the obvious, like, “When I was in this island or this island or this refugee crisis or that refugee crisis.” It’s just bragging.

What’s the value of skateboarding to the kids you teach?
Erm… exercise? (laughs). I think exercise and play are incredibly important to children in any safe form. Why I am so into getting people on skateboards is not because I think it is innately better than any other sports. There are plenty of sports where you fall over and get back up again. But the thing that really sticks out to me with skateboarding is, I tend to run toward things that scare me, and the thing that pisses me off about women not volunteering in skating and girls not wanting to skate and adult women thinking they’re too old is that none of the reasons you wouldn’t do it are good enough. It all comes down to fear. Whether it’s fear of being judged by the society around you or fear of looking stupid, fear of getting hurt, fear of what your family and friends will say, whatever. It’s all fear and that isn’t good enough. If you say to me, “Yeah I tried skateboarding but I’m not into it. I really like basketball,” that’s fine. Go play basketball. I just don’t like fear being a motivator. It has to be passion. If you’re passionate about something else, fine, do it. But if you’re not doing something you’re quite curious about and would like to try out of fear… that’s what I’m trying to battle against.

What would you say to someone who likes the idea of volunteering with a skate aid organisation to convince them to actually do it?
Get in touch. Have the conversation. If you send me an email, you’re not committing to doing it, and I’ll send you a load of information, same as Charlie would, same as a lot of these places will. If you have questions, ask them. But have the conversation. Because you might get a response that makes you say, “Fuck, I can do this.” And I will tell you right now that you can.

Get in touch, and go for it. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It completely turned my life around and it’s something that I wish for a lot of people. I think it’s good for you as a person to throw yourself into something that you’re unsure of. People think you have to understand the situation in Palestine to come here or you have to understand the refugee crisis to go to Athens. Honestly, you will never understand it, as a Western person, but the only way to get close is to be here. Whatever doubts you have that you’re not knowledgeable enough or haven’t read enough books, it’s bollocks. Be here. Meet the people. That will expand your understanding of these situations far more than reading or watching a documentary ever could.

I have an incredibly short attention span. I can’t skateboard very well. I’m pretty much good at what I do because I am a child. Honestly, if I can do it, anybody can. Not knowing all the details isn’t a reason to not go and help. One of the best things I ever did before any of the skating stuff was to start volunteering with women, street and sauna sex workers. That was really the bridge between me dancing and getting out of that. It built my confidence greatly, and at the time I thought I had nothing to offer. Even if you believe you have nothing to offer, you can stand at a sink in a soup kitchen and wash up for three hours. And if no one does that, that soup kitchen can’t run and those people can’t get fed. You can do a job, even if you truly believe you have no skills. I had a friend whose best friend had multiple sclerosis and she was wondering if there was anything she could do. At the soup kitchen, one job is to sit at the top of the stairs and count people in and out so we know how many people have come. Somebody needs to do that. She did that, and that meant that somebody who was able-bodied could wash up or collect plates or whatever. There is always something that you can do. Just do something.