Words by Thomas Girondel.
I met professional skateboarder Yurii Korotun near the Maïdan Square in Kiyv, Ukraine while doing a reportage in 2018. A skateboarder myself since my childhood, we have exchanged stories and experiences about our common passion and kept in touch via social networks.
Now 25 years old Yurii called me a few days before the Russian invasion of his country. Sensing the threat and having no more income, he decided to flee Ukraine with his wife, travelling with only a minimum luggage. After a short stay in Turkey, they moved to Hanover, Germany at the end of February.
[At the time of writing] Almost three months after the beginning of the conflict, 402,651 of the 6 million Ukrainian refugees who have fled Ukraine due to the war have been welcomed in Germany. The city of Hanover is one of the most significant convenient drop-off points: its geographical position marks it a major hub to the north of the country as well as other countries of the European Union.
To deal with the large influx of refugees, the City of Hanover together with the federal state of Lower Saxony, has rented the huge Hall 27 of the trade fair grounds (Messegelände) to host Ukrainian families. The 31,100-square-meter hall is home to 1,152 people waiting for long-term accommodation. Among these refugees, there are countless children and teenagers, lost on the outskirts of the city, waiting for better days.
The idea was to allow these kids to rebuild themselves, both physically and mentally, after having lost everything and having spent countless days on the road in exile. Because skateboarding is both playful and difficult, it demands attention and perseverance while allowing everyone to express themselves freely at the same time.
Thanks to the result of a call for donations, but also with the help of the Association for the Promotion of Culture and Sport among Young People and the members of the Gleis D Skatehalle of Hanover, Yurii has been giving free skateboarding lessons to the children of refugees since April 6. Twice a week for five hours a day he offers them a breath of fresh air and a creative outlet.
After a slow start and although the majority has never practiced skateboarding before, the number of young Ukrainians between 9 to 17 eager to discover this non-competitive activity has hit off and continues to grow. Under the supervision of volunteers, the mixed workshops reach a maximum capacity of 25 people per session. As the hours and days go by, the refugees learn beyond language barriers the unique terminology of skateboarding, their balance on the board stabilizes, everyone’s confidence increases and smiles return.
Yurii’s initiative is now popular in the Hall 27 shelter. While waiting to find a better place to live with their families in the upcoming weeks, the kids hurry to attend the workshops – hoping that one day they will ride the skateparks and roll over the streets of their respective Ukrainian hometowns.
”I arrived in Hanover with my family the 9th of March.
I didn’t know what to think about skateboarding, which is something I didn’t try before arriving in Germany.
But I wanted to try with Yurii. It was a good occasion to get out of the Messegelände [the refugee camp].
But when I saw him [Yurii] doing skateboarding tricks, I was so amazed and curious about all the possibilities you can have and do.
When we started learning basic tricks, like how to push, to ride, and to drop mini half pipes I really enjoyed it. Yurii really motivate us to carry on” Abdullah, 12, Dnipro.
“I don’t remember which month I arrived here, but I know when travelled a lot.
Before Yurii came to us we were bored...
I really like skateboarding and learning new tricks. I start to have the good basics thanks to the courses twice a week.
I’m surprised that I can already ride, push and move freely a little bit everywhere in the indoor park as I practiced only once skateboarding in Ukraine, but it was the deck of my friend. I learn quick!
To me skateboarding is above all a sport. To do tricks and to progress” Vadim, 12 - Zhytomyr Oblast
“I arrived in Hanover some time ago. Skateboarding really helps me during this terrible situation for my country.
Before Yurii came to us we stayed all day long in and outside Messe. But we had the chance to visit the city as we have free public transportation.
I started skateboarding in Ukraine before and I continue here in Germany. This is so much fun, it’s hard but nice to learn new tricks in the big wooden skatepark.
There is music, we have lunch, the team is kind and we are well welcome…
To me skateboarding represents a mix between sport and culture” Karina, 14 Odessa
”I arrived in Hanover with my family on March 9th. I left my country six days before.
I am very happy to be able to pratice skateboarding here. It’s interesting to be able to learn it which changes from being in the camp [...]
Here you can let off steam and feel free with a board. I understand now why young and old people do like skateboarding. It’s not like football, you can do it wherever and whenever you want.
This is the second time I come here to and I’d like to continue more often" Erika, 12, Dnipro
”I arrived in Hanover on March 16th after fleeing Donetsk at the end of February. I don’t remember exactly how long we were on the road. You should ask mum.
This is my third time here and I love it. I’ve never skated it before” - Bogdan, 10, Donetsk
”My family and I left Ukraine on March 10th, then we stayed in Poland for a while, before arriving in Hanover at the beginning of April.
I am very happy to be able to skate. I started skateboarding in Ukraine but here you really have the possibility to progress and at the same time you have so much fun” Makar, 11 - Dnipro
”I arrived here on March 6th after spending a lot of time walking with my family, then on buses and trains nights and days when we fled Ukraine.
This is not the first time I skate. I was already rolling in the streets of Kharkiv with my friends. But I could not carry my board with me when we fled.
This is the first time I’m going to a skatepark. I was very happy that Yurii came to offer us some skateboarding courses. Now I want to buy a skateboard and ride through the Hanover.
When the war will be over I will go back to the big Ukrainian skateparks with my friends. I will show them all the tricks I’m learning here” Dyma, 15 - Kharkiv
”I arrived in Hanover on March 16th and this is the first city I discovered after moving out with my family.
This is the first time I skate in my life and I love it.
I am progressing very fast, I found my balance and Yurii and the skatepark’s volunteers help us a lot.
I wish I could buy a board. I want to become a skateboarder like the ones you watch on internet" Arthur, 15 - Kyiv
”I arrived in Hanover on March 9th and it was the first city and country where my family and I settled when everything started.
This is the second time in my life that I can ride and that’s really cool.
I like skateboarding, it changes my mind. I would like to continue while growing up because we share a lot of things, it’s not just an individual sport.
I knew some skateparks in my country but I didn’t really know how to ride before. But now I can stand and roll, I will progress and when I will go home I will do it more often” Karina, 14 - Dnipro
“I arrived in Hanover 5 days ago. I left Kyiv when it started (...) I joined my family in Poland and then we were in Berlin. And I ended up in Hanover.
It’s been a year I know Yurii since we met each other in Kyiv. I met him several times because we were skating together with my brother Vita. And this is when I started skateboarding actually.
It is better to be here at Gleis D than staying at the refugee camp. But actually we gonna move in a flat in Berlin. So it’s been 5 days we are in the city and today is the last one we are skating here” Antoni, 9 - Kyiv
”A week after the war started, we fled Odessa. We went to Poland, Berlin [...] Then we stayed in Koblenz for a while before arriving in Hanover...
In Germany there are more opportunities for skateboarding, there are plenty of skateparks and I’m glad to be able to keep myself busy after school.
German people are very supportive for the Ukrainian cause and even in the German skateboarding community.
Skateboarding is more than a sport. It’s a culture. It started to develop slowly before the war: there were infrastructures in Kiyv and Odessa.
But here it’s the paradise, you can express yourself more easily on a board, it’s well established and it helps me to integrate quickly into my new life” Daniel, 17 - Odessa
"I’ve been managing the Gleis D Skatehalle for 5 years which is part of the non- profit Association for the Promotion of Youth Culture and Sport (Verein zur Förderung von Jugendkultur und Sport) of Hanover.
We propose to the Ukrainian refugees two playgrounds of around 2300 square meters to practice skateboarding (or whatever they want) which actually have been built by ourselves. It is a mix of wooden and concrete handmade constructions for all the community in Hanover (BMX riders and skateboarders).
One day, my colleagues told me that a Ukrainian skateboarder fled the war and was in town: Yurii wanted to help the young refugees from his country by teaching them skateboarding. I thought it was a positive action for the kids.
A lot of them arrive in the city and stay in the massive fair ground of Messegelände. Hanover is a huge hub where the Ukrainian can stay before finding somewhere else, a better place to live. Most of the time these families who lost everything stay at Messe for two or three weeks.
We proposed a 2 month fixed-term contract to Yurii within the club of Gleis D. In exchange, he gives skateboarding courses to the kids who want to come over. We also started a donation campaign with our own small foundation to collect money. So far we’re reaching approximately 1000€. These donations help us, among others, to prepare lunches for the kids.
I’m really happy that they can get out of the camp [...] It’s on the outskirt of town, far away from everything and there’s nothing for them there. Here they can learn and discover a culture. They can even have fun with scooters or BMXs.
At the Skatehalle nothing is strict, it’s not like football where you have certain hours to play. It’s a free sport, mixed, ageless and they can move freely without constraints. You can ride 30 minutes then talk and rest. And if you want to have fun with table tennis that’s possible too!
Some kids or teenagers were already skateboarders in Ukraine, so the youngest can actually watch and learn, and the oldest can share their knowledge. It’s a windfall for them during such a tough time: skateboarding can actually be a nice way to forget the war and change your mind.
I’m sure these kids will remember the city of Hanover and Gleis D Skatehalle as a joyful and positive memory [...]"
“In November I was waiting for a pro-model deck from a Ukrainian skateboarding brand while working as an assistant in a film producing company (...) but everything collapsed. There were no jobs anymore: our clients didn’t want to come over because the situation was too tensed in the country…
[…] So I was jobless and I left Ukraine the 12th of February (…) I spent some time with my girlfriend in Turkey. And when the war started we immediately came to Hanover, Germany, which is her hometown.
I decided to be hyperactive: I couldn’t sit around and watch the breaking news on TV [about the Russian’s army invasion] I wanted to use my skills as a skateboarder to help the people. One day I met 40-year-old German skateboarder Dan, and we both noticed that a lot of Ukrainian refugees were already in Hanover.
He got me in touch with the Gleis D community and I eventually met restless entrepreneur Heiko Heybey, 52 who does a lot for the attractiveness of the city. We shared the same ideas for helping the refugees so we started the project.
The latter is based on the Gleis D funds, as the Skatehalle has its own network which actually supports us with donations. With chairman Tim Löbel and the staff we organized everything (...) from the skate courses to the lunches for 25 kids in addition to promote the project with social networks: we wanted to spread the word as fast as possible!
[…] We run workshops twice a week. It’s been already a month and a half that we started, but it could be great to run 2 more per week, so I could introduce them to cultural topics. Every session we have between 18 and 25 kids coming from the Messe refugee’s camp.
To me, skateboarding was the best way for them getting out of their current situation: the 6th day of the war, I put my feet on my board and realized I felt as concentrated as when I started as a kid. I felt good [...] I thought that could be a great thing for the young refugees instead of staying at the Messe’s camp. Concentration, the balance’s work, the desire not to fall and to learn new tricks give them an opportunity to escape the reality.
So excepting if they want to talk about the current events in Ukraine, I don’t want to remind them what they go through (…) skateboarding is great because when you practice it you are absolutely disconnected from everything […] They know what’s going on there as they read the news and talk with their families. They maybe look physically young but the crisis forced them to become more mature in less than two months […]
Now they really start enjoying skateboarding and want to improve their skills. I teach them new moves and tricks. Some already want to ride the streets of Hanover. So I gave them free skateboards, which generously come from the German skateboarding community.”