“Through Cuba Skate and SkateQilya, we are building strong grassroots connections between the US and international communities. We are looking to give every child and every human being a chance at a better and more peaceful world." ~Ramsey Aburdene
Story by Kayo Anderson
Photos by Adam Abel, Janne Louise Andersen and Mohammed Othman
Two very different regions have been subjected to severe conflict since the mid-20th Century, and have been left destitute and in political isolation.
Cuba – In 1962 President John F. Kennedy imposed a commercial, economic, and financial embargo – “el bloqueo” – by the United States on Cuba. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo costs the U.S. economy $1.2 billion per year in lost sales and exports, while the Cuban government estimates that the embargo has cost the island nation a total of $750 billion over the last 50 years.
Palestine – By the end of the Palestinian Civil war in 1948, Israel had conquered 78% of Mandatory Palestine; over 700,000 Palestinians had been made refugees in what has come to be known as the “Nakba.” By 1967, Israel occupied the remaining 22% of Palestinian land. In 2002, Israel commenced construction of a 440-mile barrier along the West Bank, permanently separating itself from the majority of Palestinians.
In a landmark declaration on December 17, 2014, President Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that the United States and Cuba would be restoring full diplomatic ties. Effective immediately, new travel and trade regulations were enacted that enabled U.S. travelers to visit Cuba without first having to obtain a government license. The purge of government sanctions has reinvigorated and brought new life to our island neighbor to the south, and in turn has encouraged new dialogue and commerce between the two disconnected nations. This return to diplomacy has paved way for various humanitarian organizations, in efforts once encumbered by the political obstacles.
A University of Michigan student by the name of Miles Jackson participated in its study abroad program in Havana, Cuba. When not in the classroom, Jackson spent his time with an extremely tight group of Cuban friends, and in time he learned from them of the small island nation’s fervor for life; this passion is heavily influenced by harmony, family, and athletics. He knew of the Cuban people’s love of baseball, but there was something new that had enamored the Cuban youth – skateboarding. Their passion for this growing sport was only outweighed by their passion for life, advocacy, and culture. It was in this time spent with these friends, these kids, and the Cuban people that Jackson realized his true calling.
In 2010 Jackson founded the non-profit initiative Cuba Skate, www.CubaSkate.com. Working with professional skaters that include among their number the native Cubans Orlando Rosales and Reinaldo Vicet, Cuba Skate’s mission statement is simple: “Bring skateboarding materials to the Cuban youth, renovate local skateparks, and create self-sufficiency for a group of skaters that rely tremendously on outside help. Through two-way cultural exchanges, we hope to connect Cubans with the international skate community.”
The humanitarian work done by Jackson and Cuba Skate has been featured in mainstream publications across the world, including (but not limited to) PBS News Hour, The Huffington Post, the BBC, The Washington Post, NPR, and many more.
Back in the United States Jackson has partnered with childhood friend Ramsey Aburdene, a local advocate of human rights and the president of Forest Hills Tenleytown Music Group (FHTMG). Although not directly employed by Cuba Skate, Aburdene has helped the nonprofit group raise awareness for its efforts and brought multiple advocacy groups to Cuba to assist locally through the delivery of supplies and repair and construction of its skate parks. Most recently, Aburdene has been active in building a new Cuba Skate HQ in Havana, scheduled to be completed in early 2017.
Aburdene’s passion for skateboarding and human rights has carried him all across the world. With this experience behind him, he sees a unique opportunity to build cultural bridges by utilizing skateboarding and its subculture as a medium. Much like his work with Cuba Skate, Aburdene has undertaken similar responsibilities in the war torn region Qalqilya, Palestine.
Despite an ongoing and bloody conflict and the resulting inability to reach a permanent peace agreement, the Palestinian people have hope for a brighter future. In 2013 Adam Abel and Mohammed Othman orchestrated the construction of a highly publicized “state-of-the-art” skate ramp in the West Bank city of Qalqilya. The project’s objective is a collaborative camp and workshop titled SkateQilya, www.SkateQilya.org, which employs skateboarding and art to teach leadership and community-building skills to Palestinian youth. The duo of Abel and Othman partnered with Brad Kirr. Kirr has been responsible for the “buildout” of various international skate projects, including the legendary Mecca Ramp in Dubai; a surreal creation with the backdrop of the Arabian Desert. As it pertains to SkateQilya, Kirr organized the financing through Tashkeel, in addition to serving as project manager for the ramp. Throughout the process, Kirr secured the services and assistance of professional skaters for both consultation and promotional purposes, including US skater Kenny Reed who has been instrumental to the success of the SkateQilya.
Aburdene has organized two US fundraising and advocacy awareness events, and with this support SkateQilya successfully implemented its first camps this past August 8th-25th where Aburdene was also on the ground working to insure a successful launch. The project hosted scores of Palestinian children seeking an escape, and ultimately searching for hope for their future.
Although the journey is long and with many battles yet to be won, the greater aspirations persevere – equality, human rights, and hope for a better tomorrow. Organizations like Cuba Skate and SkateQilya are just the beginning. It must be inevitable that our globalizing world becomes more and more global minded, and in turn finds in its journey uncharted measures of progress. Will Cuba Skate and SkateQilya encounter unexpected political walls and muddied waters? Yes. However, if we unite as one against these barriers, then we can forge for ourselves a route for peace and prosperity.