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'Every day since I came to Sweden feels like a dream': From Gaza to Gothenburg through parkour

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'Every day since I came to Sweden feels like a dream': From Gaza to Gothenburg through parkour
Ahmad Matar doing parkour in Sweden. Photo: Nicola Molly McQuistion
06:59 CEST+02:00
A year ago Ahmad Matar had never left the 365 square kilometres of Gaza in his life. Now, he's in Sweden making a living from his passion, parkour. Matar spoke to The Local about freedom, training through injuries, and why it's important to get a flip from eight metres right first time.

Matar is in the middle of a parkour event in his new home Gothenburg when The Local calls. It's rare that a day goes by without him training – so high are the demands put on his body.

"You have to keep practicing all the time, otherwise you lose your conditioning. Your body can't pull it off. I'm always training, every day. If I have to stop for two weeks or so because of an injury to my foot for example I'll just do training that doesn't involve my feet. I never stop," he explained.

Parkour has completely transformed the 22-year-old's life. He first discovered the free-running sport back in 2005 and hasn't looked back since.

"I started parkour in 2005 back in Gaza with a team called PK Gaza. We created a small group, training outside in the streets. We didn't have a gym, so we started to develop ourselves by watching videos on the internet and being inspired by them."

The realities of living in Gaza meant an unorthodox approach to learning for the youngsters – there were no teachers to provide tips and certainly no comfortable crash mats to land on. Matar adapted by using the tricky environment to his advantage.

"We were training outside in public places. There's so much rubble there. We wanted to show we could jump over that, over any problem in our life. Over a destroyed building. We made so many videos of us jumping over buildings that had been destroyed, to show that nothing could stop us, parkour has no limits. That was our idea," he recalled.

"With parkour you feel like you're flying, and even in Gaza you forget everything. You're just thinking about parkour: how to do a trick, how to do a jump. I started dreaming about parkour. It took over, it changed my whole life. If there was something bad happening around me I just thought about the jump I wanted to do – it changed my mind and my life."


Doing parkour in Gaza. Photo: Ruben Hamelink

Even if Matar and his friends couldn't physically leave Gaza, the internet meant they could share their work with the world. Eventually hype started to build:

"We tried to show people through our videos both what we could do, and what was going on in Gaza. How it's not just war and a bad situation, there's another side and there are people having fun at the same time."

"People started to hear about us through our videos. So we started to get invitations for international workshops, parkour competitions and events. I was invited to come to Sweden several times, and I kept trying but it was really difficult to get a visa," he added.

For years the parkour fanatic tried to get a visa to leave Gaza, and in 2017 he finally succeeded. There was just one other problem to get over: if the border between Gaza and Egypt was closed during the time his visa was valid for, he still wouldn't be able to leave.

"The border crossing was worrying – I had to travel from Egypt, but the crossing is often closed. I got lucky that the timing of getting the visa coincided with being able to travel through there, it was pure luck for me."

When Matar finally made it to Sweden via Egypt the whole world opened up for him in an instant.

"I still wonder if I'm really alive because I can't believe what's going on around me. Everything changed so suddenly after only three days of traveling. I'm happy now, I'm always happy. I don't care about other things and just do what I like to do. It's a very different feeling from before. Every day since I came to Sweden feels like a dream."


Photo: Mohammed Alkhatib

The Palestinian knew he didn't want to go back to Gaza as his career aspirations had little hope there, and getting work as a parkour instructor made staying in Sweden a reality. Sponsorships have since followed, meaning he now makes his living entirely from parkour.

"I had come to Sweden to take part in a competition I was invited for and decided I wanted to stay. I asked my friends to help me find the best way because I didn't want to go back to that situation. Even if it means losing the chance to be with my family, because there's no future for me in Gaza. There's nothing for me to do there. I've worked hard to become as good as possible in parkour, but there's nothing in Gaza: no one cares about parkour, no one can sponsor me there," he said.

"So I started to run parkour workshops in different cities in Sweden. I coach so many kids who are interested in learning, including in Gothenburg, and I also take part in competitions. Sponsorships help pay for the travel. Volvo have made commercials with me, Red Bull too. We've been paid to do videos so that's a way to make money."

Apart from getting paid for his work, one of the other big differences is that Sweden provides a controlled environment to train in.

"People care about parkour in Sweden. We got so many injuries trying to develop in Gaza because there was no safety. We tried our tricks outside the whole time, whereas here in Sweden you try what you want inside the gym, and you have a mat so you don't hurt yourself when you land. You train on it until you're able to do it outside. In Gaza you couldn't so you got injured all the time, and you just have to keep working through those injuries. That was how we developed. Nothing came the first time, but we always managed eventually," he detailed.

Matar is constantly making new videos, but an old clip remains one of his most popular, as it includes him flipping from a terrifying height of eight metres. Asked by The Local how many times he had to practice it, the athlete laughs at the naivety of the question:

"You have to get those high flips right first time! You have to be ready for it – I never do something I don't think I'm ready for outside, so I don't hurt myself. I have that experience and know my limits. I've been training more than 13 years and I'm only 22 years old. That's a long time, most of my life has been spent on parkour. I've done so many crazy things – people ask how I'm still alive."

As an instructor he now has the opportunity to pass down his experience to new generations of aspiring athletes. That process has also encouraged him to keep learning and pushing himself.

"Teaching isn't difficult for me as I have the experience from when I was a kid, coaching myself without a trainer. So I know what the kids can do, and I can pass it on to help them do stuff without hurting themselves. They learn so quickly though. Things that took me five years to do they do in one month, it's crazy. I'm so happy for them."

Another benefit is that the close-knit community of parkour athletes has made it easier for him to make friends in notoriously cold Sweden.

"The parkour community is very close so when you do it you make a lot of friends. If you're a pro people want to get to know you, and if you're a good person that helps. We regularly put on parkour events in Swedish cities so people can come and meet us and train with us."

Matar has big plans for the future, including producing merchandise for his team.

"If you're wearing someone's shirt you can send them videos and try to get a sponsorship, and earn money to develop while they at the same time get material to use on social media. But you can also make your own clothing brand and sell it online. If you're a pro athlete people will usually want to buy it," he explained.

"That's what I hope to do, make merchandise for my team and sell it. A lot of people have asked about it, and it would help the team."

A further plan is to give something back to Gaza by opening a gym there and providing the facilities he never had.

"One day I want to go back and open a parkour gym for my team there. I've already started to think about when that could happen. We could make the gym right now but people wouldn't have the money to do it, so we need to be able to make it free. I need to find a volunteer trainer to teach parkour, all of that is connected."

While his new life is exciting and he's certain he wants to stay in Sweden to keep developing, the one clear downside to the move is leaving behind family and friends behind.

"Family is so important back home, we're all very close, so that's something I want back. But it's hard, I don't think about going back to Gaza at the moment because of the bad situation. I don't want to be somewhere where I can't do anything. If you want to develop as a person, you can't do that there, because no one can help you and there's no money for it. Everything is difficult."


Photo: Mohammed Aljakhbir

Matar tries to stay positive however, convinced that there are plenty more twists to come along the road.

"In Sweden I can work, I can train in a safe place, I can travel without problems and I'm free. In Gaza there was a border closing everything around me. I can't see my family at the moment, but it's not impossible for me to see them at some point. I always say that nothing is impossible," he concluded.

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