TEACHING PARKOUR TO REFUGEES
This was one of those projects where the idea had been bubbling up for ages, and it was just the logistics and timing that needed to fall into place to make it happen.
I first contacted the UK-based charity Help Refugees the previous summer to propose the idea. We exchanged a load of emails and a few Skype calls over the course of nine months. March 2019, we were finally on a flight to Athens.
We landed late at night. Someone had recommended we stay in a place called Exarcheia, an area in central Athens known for being alternative, its streets decorated with graffiti and murals, and lined with specialist bookshops and rare vinyl stores.
After collecting the van we’d hired, we drove into the city. The narrow streets were packed with cars, and we were forced to park some distance away from the Airbnb apartment we’d booked. Google Maps and addresses in Athens don’t work like they do in the UK so it was very difficult to figure out where the apartment was. We stopped locals on the street to ask for directions, and both times, after realising we were walking to Exarcheia’s main square, they warned us to be careful.
Generally we take cautions like this with a pinch of salt1. We’ve travelled to a lot of places and been warned about dangers only to find, time and time again, that people don’t really know and often exaggerate wildly.
Even at this hour of night, Exarcheia square was filled with young guys in big coats and hoodies hanging out. There was the odd moped, a few big dogs and a fire pit in the centre. As we crossed the square, we were approached seven or eight times by shady characters offering to sell us weed.
The steel gate and multiple locks that guarded the door of our apartment were a nice touch. By the time we got into it we were feeling decidedly uneasy! But the apartment was cool, and had two balconies that overlooked the square - perfect for people-watching.
We’d got back from Mexico just a few days before so felt jet-lagged and spaced out, and went straight to bed. There was some sort of commotion going on outside as we were falling asleep, but everyone was too tired to investigate.
Next morning, we woke up super late and had to run to a breakfast meeting with Freya from Help Refugees to discuss the workshops we’d be giving over the next few days. She was incredibly lovely and gave us a great low-down on the situation in Athens and the fantastic work her organisation is doing there.
Currently there are about 65,000 refugees in Greece from dozens of nations. Many of these people are living in unimaginably difficult conditions, in overcrowded camps, as well as in squats and even on the streets. The majority are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and East African countries. Over half are women and children. The process for being granted asylum is terribly slow so they have to remain in the camps for a long time, often years.
Over breakfast, Freya also talked about the area we were staying in, saying she’d been tear-gassed there several times.
For our first workshop, we were giving a taste of parkour to a group of women from the Orange House Project, which is located in Exarcheia. We met at a local park, and after warming up we showed them some landing techniques, some balances and vaults. They loved it! We were all so impressed by how easily they picked it up, they were amazing. One of the ladies had been a dance and aerobics teacher back in Iran - she definitely had a natural ability. The vibes were good and everyone had fun.
That night, back at our apartment, we were out on the balcony. Suddenly, a mob of 40 or 50 hooded figures came running through the square, holding crowbars and other weapons. Not long after, we all felt a stinging sensation in our eyes and nose, and realised there had been tear gas in the air!
After this experience we decided to do more research into Exarcheia. We discovered that its main square is renowned as a centre for radical political activism, and is controlled by anarchists who don’t let the police into the area.
The next day we were running a session for children who live in the Eleonas camp, and are already working with Free Movement Skateboarding, a non-profit organisation. FMS has this great space right by the camp that they’ve turned into a small skatepark.
We reorganised some benches and boxes around the ramps, and it actually turned out to be the perfect spot for the ability of the kids. Callum took lead of the session, we all warmed up, and again started off with some basic landing techniques and vaults.
Kids get bored quickly, so the session soon evolved. We put together a series of jumps and vaults, creating a course around the space. Most of the kids were girls, which was great to see, and one of them had actually watched our videos before.
It was crazy to think they all lived in Eleonas, fortunately one of the better camps. In spite of their, no doubt, traumatic life experiences, they all seemed normal happy children who clearly enjoyed the chance to be able to run and jump around!
When the time came to finish the session none of them, or us, wanted it to end – the vibes were so good. The kids wanted to carry on learning parkour so I managed to track down some local coaches and introduced them to FMS, so they could set up some regular classes.
We ended the trip in the perfect way - a solid session at a local spot with a small part of the Greek parkour community, followed by a sunset aerial climb and drone shot. What more could you ask for?
Hopefully you’re reading this after watching the video - if not, go watch it here!
Help Refugees provides humanitarian aid across more than 80 projects around the world. It’s funded by donations as well as through the world’s first online store that sells real products for refugees – at Choose Love you can buy specific items such as food, clothing, sleeping bags and tents, or choose to support them in other ways.
And you might recall that, at the end of the video, we said 50% of the value of clothing sales over the following 24-hours would be donated to Help Refugees. Well, thanks to you guys, we were able to buy the store!
1 A pinch of salt - British idiom