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Photo Essay: Wheels of Hope
Being on a skateboard requires incredible concentration: You must find your balance and keep your body tensed and ready for action. Skateboarding leaves no space for brooding. Thoughts of an unhappy love or the war in your country disappear for just a moment.
Seven months since Russia invaded Ukraine, 6 million refugees have fled the country. Of those, 1 million Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed to Germany. The city of Hanover is a significant drop-off point, where thousands of families are hosted in the huge Hall 27 of the trade exhibition grounds. Here, countless children and teenagers are lost on the outskirts of the city.
This sad situation gave 25-year-old Ukrainian professional skater Yurii Korotun an idea.
All photos by Thomas Girondel.
As one of Ukraine’s best skaters, Korotun had been sponsored by brands and was even expected to compete in the Olympics. But when Russia deployed troops near the Ukrainian border in December 2021, companies started pulling out of the country, and he lost all his sponsors. As the situation escalated, and Korotun sensed the Russian threat looming, he decided to flee Ukraine with his girlfriend in February 2022. After a short stay in Turkey, they moved to Hanover.
Distraught by the war and the monotonous daily life of his fellow refugees, Korotun wanted to help. Convinced of the benefits of skateboarding, Korotun was determined to support the displaced young people in his own way: by teaching them how to skateboard.
With the help of members from Hanover’s indoor skatepark, Gleis D Skatehalle, and a call for donations, Korotun has been giving free skateboarding lessons to young refugees since April 6. After weeks or months of exile, living in Hall 27, young refugees can once again be physically and mentally active. For five hours per day twice a week at Gleis D, they can escape from reality.
As the days go by, the youth overcome language barriers to learn the vocabulary of skateboarding. They progress fast: Their balance on the boards stabilizes while rolling, and everyone’s confidence increases. Eventually, smiles return to their faces.
Because skateboarding is both playful and difficult, it demands attention and perseverance while allowing everyone to express themselves freely. These activities and the community they foster are a breath of fresh air for these displaced rookie skateboarders. It gives them hope of rolling one day on the streets of their respective hometowns.
As the war rages, skaters and bikers back in Ukraine struggle to access their creative outlet. Supply disruptions and the difficulty of transporting equipment from the Western countries makes it hard to get what they need. In the spirit of solidarity, Gleis D Skatehalle’s volunteers organized a humanitarian convoy in August to deliver skate equipment to Ukraine.
Participants of project Cargo Mission traveled by van 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles)—from Berlin, Germany, to Poland to Lviv, Ukraine—over the course of four days. Korotun couldn’t join the convoy due to the risks posed by martial law, so Gabriel Goldsack, founder of the nonprofit Share a Bike/Share a Smile, accompanied the volunteers.
Despite apprehension about entering a country at war, volunteers managed to distribute 74 skateboards, nine BMX bikes, and many spare parts in Lviv and other cities most heavily impacted by the Russian offensives.
With this surge of solidarity, Ukrainian youth skaters both in and out of the country can use the sport for freedom of expression and to foresee a peaceful future.
Thomas Girondel is a 37-year-old geographer and former natural risks officer working as an independent photojournalist and documentary photographer. He is distributed by INSTITUTE Artist. In 2014, he spent several weeks in Ukraine, where he documented life amid a conflict zone with his analog Fujica camera. His work Reaching Donetsk was exhibited in a solo show at the Espace Cosmopolis in Nantes. He returned to Ukraine many times to document the country's transformation since the conflict broke out. In 2015 and continuing in 2016, he recorded various protest movements, both in France and Germany, as well as social issues in Eastern Europe. He then returned to his roots as a geographer by reporting on Seattle’s water-based community. After having completed an internship at the photo desk of Le Monde newspaper, he decided to focus on a long-term project on Yeu Island (2018 – 2021) to document the youth’s perceptions of freedom on a limited territory. In 2022 after the Russian invasion, he documented the genesis of a dedicated skateboarding school for Ukrainian refugees in Hanover, Germany. Suffering from PTSD due to the Donetsk 2014 memories, he preferred focusing on more positive than the anxiety-provoking breaking news images. His visual work has been featured internationally, including, among others, STERN Magazine, Telegraph Magazine, Financial Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the international editions of GEO, GoodWeekend Australia, De Standaard, Fluter, Zeit Leo, VICE Media, Rhythms Monthly, L'OBS, and Actes Sud publishing house. He can be reached at: [email protected]