Dili 360°

Text and photo by Nadine Freischlad

More than 12 years after Timor-Leste gained independence, the young nation still suffers from the consequences of conflict and is in search of identity. Ryan Arantes, an Indonesian living in Dili, contributes to reconciliation by doing what he does best: skateboarding.

Dili’s skatepark is located at about halfway between Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport and the city center. The park is an agglomeration of ramps and obstacles built out of concrete and decorated with tentative graffiti. It’s part of the serene, open compound that also houses the office of the NGO Ba Futuro – “For the Future”.

When we arrive, the park is empty. Ryan takes out his longboard and leisurely rolls up and down the ramps. The sound of hard wheels scraping on concrete hangs in the air.

The evening before, Ryan told the story of how he arrived in Dili. It wasn’t with a fixed plan in mind to get involved with NGO work. He came to Timor Leste as a traveller, trying to clear his mind and find solace after the passing of a close friend in an accident months before.

Opportunities came knocking on Ryan’s door while he was in Dili. Serendipitously, he was presented with an offer to turn a former beach-side Indian restaurant into a bar. His entrepreneurial instinct kicked in and he decided to say yes.

At the same time, Ryan came in contact with the people from Ba Futuro. They had built the skatepark on their compound in 2006, as part of a programme to work with thousands of internally displaced people who were living in camps due to violent conflicts in the country at that time. But Timor Leste has been relatively peaceful since that last major outbreak, and the camps have disbanded. The main coordinator of the skate programme left, and the NGO’s focus shifted towards education. With Ryan, they had found the perfect person to reinvigorate the skate programme which they called Extreme Leste.

Extreme Leste was set up to engage children and teenagers from the refugee camps. Ryan now works with some of the skaters who had their first experience on a board under the tutelage of Extreme Leste. Rather than teaching newcomers the basics, he is helping the more experienced skaters level up, build community and get connected with the world beyond Dili.

Ryan’s position as a mediator between Indonesia, Timor Leste, and the world is remarkable. Few Indonesians visit Timor Leste, let alone start businesses there, says Ryan. Memories of the past still linger, complicating the relationship between the two countries. Timor Leste’s breaking away from Indonesia after the 1999 referendum was a shock to many Indonesians, because they felt that it threatened the integrity of the archipelago nation. In the aftermath of the referendum, militia groups associated with Indonesia’s military took brutal revenge on Timor Leste’s population. After independence, several outbreaks of violence across different East Timorese camps continued to make life hard for ordinary people.

As a result of decades of war, violence and the lack of opportunities, Timor Leste’s youth are particularly vulnerable. According to data from Ba Futuro, roughly three-quarters of Timor-Leste’s population are 25 years of age or younger – many of the older generation perished during the period of conflict. Youth unemployment is extremely high, up to 40 per cent in urban areas, and this has led to high levels of youth involvement in gang activity.

Programmes like Extreme Leste are one way to help keep youth away from gangs, by encouraging them to stay fit and mentally healthy, to participate in society and engage in lasting relationships.

“Skating and other extreme sports need dedication, you don’t have time to throw stones or do drugs if you want to become the best or even just good. You can see this already in Dili’s best talents. By becoming instructors at Extreme Leste they will also become good role models for other young people. Sports create connections,” says Ryan.

At the skatepark, young men are now starting to show up one by one. It’s as if the familiar whizzing and clicking of the board signalled them to come.

It’s fascinating to watch Ryan interact with the skaters. It seems to be no issue that they have to converse in Indonesian, since Ryan does not speak Tetum or Portuguese, two of the many languages commonly spoken in multilingual Timor Leste.

Rather than trying to teach or organise, he is part of the group, asking them about what they have done that day, how often they practised skateboarding and what new tricks they needed to learn. They discuss possible improvements to the skatepark layout, and Ryan shoots photos and videos, which he later shares on their Facebook page.

Seeing photos and videos of themselves published on social media raises the skaters’ confidence and helps build a sense of community, explains Ryan. The documentation also supports Ryan in his fundraising efforts. Right now, Extreme Leste consists of a handful of skaters, but the plan is to expand the programme in the future and to introduce young people to skating, especially girls, too.

In May, Ryan plans to hold the first competition at the Ba Futuro skate park. He argues that setting a goal will push his skaters to practise regularly, and the exposure a competitive event receives will attract new members.

Through Extreme Leste, Ryan is not only helping young people in Timor Leste expand their horizons and prove themselves, he has also found a new outlook for himself.

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