It all started with a call from Toby, the Head of Projects at skate-aid. We had been working together since 2015 and had built a good friendship over the years. The chat was quick, but the weight of the call was more intense than I would have ever imagined. He asked me to join the construction crew for a new project… in Syria! I was stunned. Syria?
What I knew about Syria at that time was, that there were a lot of Syrian refugees scattered around the globe. It seemed like everyone was trying desperately to escape Syrian realities and I understand why. It was a heart-breaking, war torn country. Yet here I was, contemplating whether or not to go to Syria to build a skate park. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a construction worker. Nor am I a civil engineer. I was and still am merely a Spanish boy, trying to make a dent in this world by giving children hope, joy and fulfilment through skateboarding. I have done this for many years with nothing but a skateboard in my hand and a few cents. My passion has always fuelled me and the results have always blown me away.
Anyway, it was still a difficult decision to make. I spent hours and hours, day after day collecting information to figure out what’s the right decision, yet still my anxiety grew. I can still easily describe the root cause for the anxiety. Fear. Purely fear. Fear for my life, fear of the unknown, fear of pushing my personal boundaries. It seemed the more time I spend collecting information, the worse the anxiety levels grew. Wait, what?! Syria? War? What am I even thinking?
On top of that, there are my friends and family. Their advice and worries did not help me to feel any better. None of them thought it was a good idea. Just imagine the moment that I broke the news to them that after careful thoughts and considerations I decided to go through with Project Syria…for the kids! They just thought I was totally mad!! I have heard that kind of comment many times before defer to an adventure that proved to be remarkable and life-changing. It was not going to be an easy journey, but I was convinced and had a strong desire to change people’s lives and make a meaningful impact through this project. Luckily, I had my skateboard and my passion pushing me in the right direction.
So I said ‘f***k yeah!’ (Apologies for my bad language but that was literally the answer)
So I flew to Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Amazing place and wonderful people. As always, I ended up skating with the local guys and my new crew. Strangers skating together like they’ve have known each other forever. You know what I am talking about. Such a gorgeous feeling!
After a few days, we crossed the boarder by land. I remember this clearly. There were checkpoints after checkpoints and more checkpoints…until stopped counting. The road from Beirut to Damascus is known as ‘the road with 1000 checkpoints’. 1001 checkpoints later we finally arrived in a semi-destroyed city called Qudsaya, 7km west of the Syrian capital, Damascus. All I could focus on was the huge bullet holes everywhere that painted the town’s landscape while clever birds used them as a perfect shelter to build their nests.
Just when I was getting used to the bullet filled landscape, the local guide decided to share that Qudsaya was controlled by the rebels not too long ago. Rebels. Real rebels. This is no longer something I just read about, watched on the news or heard from someone else. I was actually experiencing the devastating effects thereof: my legs were continuously shaking.
During this period, living conditions were tough. This was especially true for me, coming from a western society where I have all my needs taken care of and I take this for granted sometimes. We had 1-2 hours electricity a day. We ran the lights in the house with car batteries most of the time. When the power came back, all the plugs were instantly all fully utilised for charging purposes. I won’t forget the excitement that always led in a dance when the power came back on. “Guys, the power is back on!!”
We had zero hot water due to the power issues. Cold showers mixed with pre-boiled water from the kitchen in a tiny pot were a good wakeup call in the mornings. I even remember waking up every now and then in the middle of the night due to sudden sturdy sounds of missiles and massive blasts…whaaaat?! What was that guys? Boom…right? We called our ‘security manager’ to get more information. Result: the target of the missile was an army facility, more than 50 kilometres away. So we tried to go back to sleep with that “comforting information”. Another day a car exploded! Then a nearby pharmacy! Essentially we were building a skate park under booms!
Fortunately, skate-aid, the partner organization SOS Children’s Villages and the local people helped us and took care of us very well. The coffee and tea brought by the neighbours to the site. The shawarma, falafel and hummus in the local shops where we enjoyed a little chat and/or exchanged smiles. The morning Manoushi-Bread and chocolate croissants… aaaah…delicious gastronomy!
The language barrier caused some challenges but we communicated with gestures and pen and paper. The local community knew we were building some ‘bizarre concrete structure’ park for the kids, so they supported and appreciated us.
Suddenly, in a blink of an eye, we were done! The project was completed in less than a month thanks to all the extra local help and the motivation and drive of the crew! Unbelievable!
Before we left, more than 300 kids used to come to the park everyday. Definitely it was all worth it!!
I will never forget Syria. The warm-hearted people, the kind faces and friendly smiles. I wish to return sometime in the near future for sure!
Text by Gabriel "Gabu" Roma Santos