Cambodia’s Mighty Girls
In Cambodia, Khmer girls are supposed to be gentle and obedient. A young woman in shorts is tackling this ideal with her prowess on the football pitch.
Parkour is the art of moving quickly and fluidly through an area or environment, surmounting obstacles as efficiently as possible with no outside assistance. Our author Philipp works as a parkour coach at ParkourONE. He and his colleagues spent two weeks in the Gaza Strip last summer, honing the parkour skills of traumatized children. He reports on how they worked together, learning to overcome hurdles, both physical and psychological.
“Living in Gaza is like living in hell,” Abdullah from Parkour Gaza says. A hell from which there is no real escape. A high wall encircles the Gaza Strip, a very real and omnipresent obstacle. It is just one of the obstacles that confront Gaza residents every day, an area marred by religious conflict, limited rights for women, and a slumbering war that could reawaken at any time.
Many who live in the Gaza Strip have been traumatized. No concrete numbers are available, but estimates indicate that a large percentage of the population suffer from the aftereffects of violence and war, especially the younger generation. The ongoing conflict has created a state of fear and insecurity that makes it difficult to live ‘normal’ lives, and residents are limited in their movement in the public sphere.
“For the young people of Gaza, reclaiming the public space can be a powerful way to overcome trauma.”
For children and young people in particular, public spaces are important for healthy growth and psychological development. They allow them to engage with their environment, foster creativity, and are an important part of everyday life. But the frequent violent clashes in Gaza have closed off the public sphere. It is almost impossible to move about freely outdoors, which leaves the young feeling disconnected and alienated.
These public spaces provide the infrastructure for movement in parkour, a sport in which it is essential to perceive the environment and all its inherent obstacles as holistically as possible.
For the young people of Gaza, reclaiming the public space can be a powerful way to overcome trauma. And parkour can help. Parkour offers children a way to shift from viewing the obstacles around them as threats to seeing them as challenges they can overcome. Safety is paramount, and young people learn the skills they need to assess the safety of their environment. This ability to judge where and how to move safely strengthens their self-confidence.
Philipp uploaded a short montage of his work with the local parkour community to his YouTube channel.
“Every traceur has quickly discovered that physical strength alone is not enough, and it takes mental and emotional agility to overcome obstacles.”
Traceurs – as Parkour runners refer to themselves – report that parkour increases their feelings of confidence. They are guided and inspired by the principle of self-efficacy. Albert Bandura wrote that a resilient sense of efficacy emerges through the experience of overcoming obstacles through persistent effort. And while Bandura was probably not referring to the literal overcoming of physical obstacles, his ideas apply equally to parkour. Traceurs climb tall walls and conquer other obstacles using just the strength and skill of their own bodies with no outside assistance. This involves hard physical work, but also calls on psychological processes such as resilience, mental agility and personal maturity. Parkour cannot be viewed in isolation as a physical act. Every traceur has quickly discovered that physical strength alone is not enough, and it takes mental and emotional agility to overcome obstacles. On the ground, balance can be easy. But move that same beam three metres into the air, and it becomes a completely different mental challenge. Facing obstacles with your body and your mind is what makes parkour a holistic activity.
With this basic foundation in mind, I joined three of my colleagues from ParkourONE Academy on a trip to Gaza in August where we worked with 150 children. Together with our partner Caritas Switzerland, who has a broad experience in working with traumatized children in regions of crisis, and the Youth Empowerment Center (YEC), our local partner, we introduced our young charges to the power of parkour and taught them the basic values that underpin our art.
“Freedom from competition, caution, respect, trust, humility, and courage.”
The fundamental values rooted in parkour also serve as a solid foundation for helping children and young people overcome trauma through the daily challenge of facing obstacles. In general and in Gaza as well, our seminars are based on the TRuST (Training und Standard) concept and promote freedom from competition, caution, respect, trust, humility and courage.
“Perhaps we were able to give the 50 girls in the programme ideas and encouragement for staying active…”
Courage and assertiveness are two particularly relevant qualities for girls and young women in the Gaza Strip, where they are simultaneously two qualities that are particularly hard to express. Within the context of Islam, many girls are no longer allowed to participate in sports once they turn twelve, especially in the public sphere. Our coaches Karina played a key role here, as she embodied a powerful female role model in her work with both boys and girls. Parkour also offers a myriad of opportunities for girls to remain physically active in their everyday lives without having to join a club or participate in official “training”. On their daily walk to school, for example, the curb serves as an excellent opportunity to work on balance. Perhaps we were able to give the 50 girls in the programme ideas and encouragement for staying active, which might later even translate into identifying and overcoming societal hurdles.
“If a few children from our workshops are still involved in parkour ten years from now, we will have achieved our goal.”
Our cooperation with the local parkour community in Gaza, Parkour Gaza, was essential to ensuring that our work with young people has a lasting impact, both in terms of empowering local traceurs and creating a network and range of courses for the future. Our hope is that the children and young people can continue to profit from what they learned and count on the support of the local network even after the project. Only time will tell, but if a few children from our workshops are still involved in parkour ten years from now, we will have achieved our goal.
Since we returned from Gaza, two traceurs I got to know there have left. They succeeded in overcoming the border, and I cannot help but wonder if parkour training helped them in some way. Certainly not in overcoming the physical challenge posed by the border, but parkour has the potential to shape and change a person’s character.
There will be a video documentation about the project soon.