I went to Palestine not knowing what to expect. I went into the unknown. Looking back, I think I just had some blind faith in the power of skateboarding. Somehow, I knew everything would turn out all right with my skateboard by my side. Now, after the experience my belief in the positive effects of skateboarding is stronger than ever. It’s hard not to sound cliché when writing about international volunteering. It’s such a romanticized topic. I will try to be as honest as possible and tell you about one experience I had that stayed with me.
When I first arrived to Bethlehem, I had eight skate-aid boards waiting for me and I started doing open workshops. It wasn’t hard to get the kids involved, in fact I had to many kids wanting to try. After school, they would all come running to my room and so many fists would be knocking on my door demanding that we go skate. It was difficult and hectic but also very fun and exciting. We hadn’t found our balance yet. They would fight with each other over the boards. The older kids wouldn’t let the little ones skate. I was not an authority for them. They outnumbered me and they wouldn’t listen (not knowing any Arabic didn’t help). It was a mess and I would be truly exhausted every night. Still I persisted. I thought about new strategies to try the next day. I still had nearly three months to go. I had to make it work.
I realized that I needed to be stricter with them (at least until I had their respect). Their school and home environments had lots of rules and lots of authoritarian adults. They would curse me if I let them break my rules without consequences. Most importantly we would not have as much fun skating as we potentially could! There were a few kids who were especially disruptive to our skate sessions, but one of them definitely stood out. He was especially mean and loud. He would bully others and his actions had an impact on the way the rest of the kids behaved too. I noticed he was not having a good time himself either… just letting out his frustration on others. His behavior was destructive for the whole group. I had to act. After many tries to calm him down and get him to simply skate, I had to stop the class and bring him home. I held his arm firmly as we walked home (once running after him when he tried to escape). This was a shocking experience to me because I never had to practice such strong discipline and be faced with such raw anger from a child. I remember my heart beating very hard when I was walking back to the skate park after leaving him in the care of his foster mother. We continued the workshop and the rest of the kids seemed grateful that we could have a little bit of order. This unpleasant moment made the rest of the session better for everyone. Now the children knew that their actions could have consequences. Everyone could skate and have fun with a little bit of respect instead of causing chaos.
The next day I let the same trouble-making boy back into my class in hopes that he would be different but he did the same thing: testing me, yelling at other kids and being disruptive. I brought him home again. This time he was calm as we walked. That night I came up with a plan. The following day I knocked on the boy’s door and asked for him. I had two skateboards, one for each of us. He was quite shy at first and didn’t know why I was giving him a special privilege after he’d been misbehaving. We spent an hour calmly skating together. He took the chance I gave him, appreciated the kindness and after our little session, he changed his behavior. He started showing smaller kids how to stand on the board and eagerly helped me carry all the boards and helmets home after the session.
That small victory felt good. But that wasn’t the last challenge. My whole stay, there would be small conflicts and I would try to find positive solutions. Not all were victories, but I think I was able to bring a little bit of positive change to some children’s lives… maybe just temporarily.
During my stay the particular boy from this story seemed to have improved all around. His foster mother later reported to me that, after skateboarding , he was calmer at home and I noticed that he was less frustrated and angry when I would see him.
As a volunteer when you go on your first trip your expectations of “making a difference” are so high. You want to help and impact the whole world. Those are great intentions. In truth, this is something really hard to do, even in your neighborhood or within your own family. It takes a lot of effort and its emotionally demanding. A trip like this shows you the reality and you shrink your expectation of the amount of difference you can make. You realize that you might be able to truly form friendships and maybe teach something valuable to a handful of kids. That feels really good though. It’s solid yet intangible. You can empower someone!
In the end, I think I learned just as much from the kids in Bethlehem as I was able to teach them. Skateboarding provides this perfect middle ground where people can become friends and learn from each other. Maybe that’s what it’s all about: exchange.
Text by Kyryl Baranov, Volunteer in Bethlehem, Palestine, September to December 2019