If you can, think back to before the pandemic – the summer of 2019.
Brussels Gallery Weekend; and the worst heatwave in the city’s history was sweeping through. While the streets were full of sweltering revellers, enjoying (/complaining about) some of the warmest weather on record; THE SKATEROOM decided to initiate a project to raise funds towards social skate projects for the local underprivileged youth of Brussels. Three years later, we look back at the impact of that summer on the city today.
The artists assemble
Seven artists were invited for one-week residencies at THE SKATEROOM gallery in Brussels, to transform it into their workshop, create works of art on skateboards and to showcase their work. Arnaud Kool, Sebal, Sozyone & Nick Boey, Polly Pollet, Atelier Louves, & Denis Meyers‘ challenge was to create a collection of skateboards that would be auctioned during Brussels Gallery Weekend to raise funding for Byrrrh & Skate and other local initiation programs, such as Monsters on Wheels, allowing them to offer free skateboarding lessons to local underprivileged youth.
“The heatwave made the project even more intense!” Remembers Sebal (Sebastien Alouf), one of the resident artists. “I worked on the skateboard as an object, rather than a canvas. I decided to make not only the artwork on the board but the board itself – totally hijacking the object to make something that wasn’t skateable at all.” Sebal’s work, alongside that of the other artists, went on to raise money for free skate classes. “I loved that.” continues Sebal. “I’m also doing workshops with kids. It’s so gratifying to see them create and have fun together, taking confidence in themselves.”
Schools IN for summer
While the funds were raised successfully over the summer of 2019, COVID-19 caused delays. Now, in June 2021, these free lessons have begun. “Finally, we are able to organise the first two classes for these young people who have newly arrived in Brussels.” Youssef Abaoud, one of the original founders of Byrrrh & Skate, has been driving his skatepark in the direction of social change since its humble beginnings in 2014. “We have two more classes coming up. And already we see many of these kids making remarkable progress in terms of skating, making friends, having fun and gaining confidence.”
We were lucky enough to attend one of these lessons. Seeing these young people skate and express themselves at Byrrrh & Skate reminded us just how much these sorts of grassroots projects are needed even in the “capital of Europe”, where structural governmental support for both undocumented migrants and, in a different sense, skateboarding culture is still far from sufficient. Youssef brought together a community of skateboarders and park builders from all over the world to create a real gem of a DIY park – for skaters by skaters. Nearly a decade later, and his commitment to social engagement is still going strong.
“We want to make skateboarding available for kids who don’t currently have access to these sorts of activities. First we’ll organise these free classes for specific groups of kids. Secondly, we will cover the costs for a few of these kids to participate in our summer camps, where they can meet other kids from all sorts of backgrounds. Finally, we want to actually give them a complete skateboard, that way they can really start skating by themselves. That’s how Byrrrh & Skate will take accessibility and integration all the way.” – Youssef Abaoud – co-founder, Byrrrh & Skate.
Partnerships that pave the way
In order to make this a reality, Byrrrh & Skate works with various associations in Brussels, including CPAS Saint Josse, which helps local kids from under-served backgrounds with their school work, and Taalkot, which facilitates language classes and integration activities. Raion is a key partner in the project: organising events, classes and camps to bring people together and support the Belgian skate scene. From September, the team will expand into several neighbourhood schools in Anderlecht to promote skateboarding to more children who may benefit from the classes. Youssef finishes: “That’s really the goal and the philosophy of the Byrrrh: to make skateboarding accessible for anyone. Every euro that we receive from THE SKATEROOM serves that cause. It’s amazing to see these kids progress so much in so little time.”
“Byrrrh & Skate is really our home in Brussels, and we take care of most of the classes and initiations organised by Youssef. After a few classes they can navigate the skatepark by themselves. And it’s not just skateboarding skills that we teach here, we also work on values like respect and perseverance. As they progress in skateboarding, they treat each other more respectfully, which is especially great in groups that are very diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and language.”
– Dimitri Lebbe – founder, Raion; skateboarding instructor
The team behind the free classes for refugees cannot be sure that any of their participants will ever step on a skateboard again outside of class. With this in mind, they focus more on the experience of coming together to learn and have fun, rather than on advanced skateboarding techniques. The team had to think in a new way about skateboarding tuition. Dimitri explains: “Youssef and our team proposed that one boy and one girl from each group, the ones we feel are the most dedicated to skateboarding, should participate in the summer camps that do focus a lot more on actual skate skills. We can afford to make the summer camps accessible for free for them and that means a lot to me – even if it’s only two per group.”
The future brings more opportunities for Byrrrh & Skate, Raion, and their partner social projects, to make skateboarding accessible to undocumented, unaccompanied and under-served children in Brussels. THE SKATEROOM is committed to helping them develop and expand this work in the years to come.
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