Blind Magazine : photography at first sight

The Wheels of Hope: Skateboarding in Wartime 

French photojournalist Thomas Girondel recounts the story of Yurii Korotun, a twenty-five-year-old Ukrainian professional skateboarder who teaches the sport to refugee children in Hannover, Germany, to help them forget about the war. Skateboarding becomes a therapy.

As a skateboarder, you have to be incredibly focused: finding your balance, keeping a tense core, staying upright. There is no time to stop and think. The grief over a loved one or the trauma of war back home vanish for a moment.

I met the professional Ukrainian skateboarder Yurii Korotun, in 2018, near Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine, when I was doing a long-term project on the aftermath of the bloody clashes between protesters and the militia in the capital. A skater since I was a kid, I was straight away impressed by his style and the figures he was making in this imposing space. We kept in touch.

Portrait of skateboarder Yurii Korotun holding a skateboard with the Russian words "No War" color customized with the Ukrainian flag. Hanover, Germany. April 27th, 2022. © Thomas Girondel
Portrait of skateboarder Yurii Korotun holding a skateboard with the Russian words “No War” color customized with the Ukrainian flag. Hanover, Germany. April 27th, 2022. © Thomas Girondel

As one of the best Ukrainian skateboarders, Yurii was sponsored by brands, and I even expected him to participate in the Olympic Games. He also skated in front of President Volodymyr Zelensky at the opening of one of the biggest skateparks in the country.

At the same time, he was working at a production company that shot promotional videos for international clients. As the Russian threat loomed, and Yurii Korotun was gradually losing sponsors and advertising contracts, he decided to flee Ukraine with his girlfriend, taking only the bare necessities.

After a short stay in Antalya, Turkey, they settled in Hanover, Germany in February 2022. That’s when he contacted me again about telling his story. 

The best technique to "drop" a halfpipe is to place the feet parallel to the board, "On the screws." advises Yurii. 12-year-old Vadim from the Zhytomyr Oblast quickly succeeds in this risky move. Hanover, Germany. April 13th, 2022. © Thomas Girondel
The best technique to “drop” a halfpipe is to place the feet parallel to the board, “On the screws.” advises Yurii. 12-year-old Vadim from the Zhytomyr Oblast quickly succeeds in this risky move. Hanover, Germany. April 13th, 2022. © Thomas Girondel

Rebuilding

Since the beginning of the conflict, over one million Ukrainians have been welcomed in Germany. Due to its geographical location, the city of Hannover is one of the chief points of transit into northern Germany and the rest of the European Union.

In order to cope with this unprecedented influx of refugees, and in cooperation with the federal state of Lower Saxony, the city of Hannover has rented the impressive Hall 27 of the Messegelände (trade fair grounds) to house Ukrainian families. 

The huge, 31,100-square-meter hall is home to more than 1,000 people waiting for adequate housing. Many of the refugees are children and teenagers lost at the outskirts of the city, waiting to see better days.

Abdullah, 12 - Dnipro. © Thomas Girondel
Abdullah, 12 – Dnipro. © Thomas Girondel
Karina, 14 - Odessa. © Thomas Girondel
Karina, 14 – Odessa. © Thomas Girondel
Vadim, 12 years old, Zhytomyr Oblast. © Thomas Girondel
Vadim, 12 years old, Zhytomyr Oblast. © Thomas Girondel

Separated from his family, and distressed by the war and the monotonous daily life of the refugees in Hanover, Yurii wanted to find a way to help them. A firm believer in the benefits of skateboarding, and enjoying name recognition thanks to his sponsors, he decided to support these young migrants in his own way. 

They had left everything behind and had spent many days on the road in exile, and Yurii wanted to help them find their footing, both physically and mentally. Both fun and challenging, skateboarding develops focus and encourages perseverance, even as it gives everyone free rein to express themselves.

Thanks to a fund drive, organized with the help of the Association for the Promotion of Culture and Sport among Young People and the members of the Gleis D skatepark in Hanover, Yurii has been giving free skateboarding lessons to refugee children since April 2022. Five hours a day, twice a week, he offers them a breath of fresh air and a creative outlet.

Yurii helps Karina, 14 from Odessa, to fasten her helmet. Thanks to a partnership with European online skateshop Blue Tomato who wished to support the positive initiative of giving skateboarding courses to the refugees, Gleis D Skate Halle’staff received from the company numerous free skateboards and protective gears such as helmets, elbow and knee pads for the rookies. Hanover, Germany. April 14th, 2022. © Thomas Girondel
Yurii helps Karina, 14 from Odessa, to fasten her helmet. Thanks to a partnership with European online skateshop Blue Tomato who wished to support the positive initiative of giving skateboarding courses to the refugees, Gleis D Skate Halle’staff received from the company numerous free skateboards and protective gears such as helmets, elbow and knee pads for the rookies. Hanover, Germany. April 14th, 2022. © Thomas Girondel

Adapting to the German way of life was difficult at first. Everything was new: to start with, the language. Scattered around different schools, the young refugees were able to get together only at the refugee camp in the evenings and at the Gleis D Skatepark during the week.

Skateboarding lessons are an opportunity to spend time with Yurii. The young people feel safe and can talk in Ukrainian. Despite the trauma of exile, they are regaining self-confidence; and the skateboarding community offers them a social life and helps them open up onto the world.

Close-up of skateboards and legs of young Ukrainian refugees at Gleis D Skate Halle. Hanover, Germany. April 27th, 2022. © Thomas Girondel
Close-up of skateboards and legs of young Ukrainian refugees at Gleis D Skate Halle. Hanover, Germany. April 27th, 2022. © Thomas Girondel

Gaining balance

After a shaky start, the number of young people of all ages, often novices, eager to discover this non-competitive activity, has been steadily growing. Supervised by volunteers, the mixed workshops reach twenty-five participants.

Outside the language barrier, the time spent in the skatepark has helped the refugees gain balance and boosted their confidence, and opened up the brightened up the grim faces with laughter and good humor. Yurii’s initiative is now popular in the state capital of Lower Saxony and among the children refugees at the camp.

On the way back to Messe refugee’s camp, while Arthur looks out the tramway window, Erika rests on Karina’s shoulder while watching her mobile phone. Hanover, Germany. April 27th, 2022. © Thomas Girondel
On the way back to Messe refugee’s camp, while Arthur looks out the tramway window, Erika rests on Karina’s shoulder while watching her mobile phone. Hanover, Germany. April 27th, 2022. © Thomas Girondel

Since last August, many families have finally found more permanent homes in the city. The weekly activities of the adolescent migrants are now shared between their German friends and skateboarding. Traumatic memories have been chased away from the Gleis D skatepark, and Yurii has noticed how much this borderless culture has transformed the young sidewalk surfers.

Even though most of them do not want to talk about their future or the current conflict, their smiles have returned because skateboarding allows them to escape the reality, if only for a little while.

Going forward, the refugees are eager to improve their skills in the workshops: this is another victory over the Russian aggressor and an expression of the hope of riding around skateparks and streets of their Ukrainian hometowns.

While a German train I.C.E (Intercity Express) passes-by the Gleis D Skate Halle, 12-year-old Abdullah stares at Yurii Korotun performing a trick on an outdoor mini halfpipe. Hanover, Germany. April 13th, 2022. © Thomas Girondel
While a German train I.C.E (Intercity Express) passes-by the Gleis D Skate Halle, 12-year-old Abdullah stares at Yurii Korotun performing a trick on an outdoor mini halfpipe. Hanover, Germany. April 13th, 2022. © Thomas Girondel
Portrait of Gleis D Skate Halle chairman Tim Löbel, 29. © Thomas Girondel
Portrait of Gleis D Skate Halle chairman Tim Löbel, 29. © Thomas Girondel

Read More : People of Ukraine

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