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Rollerblading trumps jihad, French say

The French group Planet Roller brought a team to Yemen to show kids there's an alternative to jihad.

SANAA, Yemen — Perhaps it was the spandex shorts.

When a group of about 200 young people gathered to watch two-dozen or so foreigners rollerblading their way down the road, joint pads and shiny black helmets glinting in the afternoon sun — and yes, an occasional glimpse of spandex — the looks on Yemeni faces ranged from delighted to quizzical to astonished.

Of course, given the group — students and the disabled — had been bussed into the capital for the occasion, there was much cheering and waving of Yemeni flags, too. 

“This is exactly the goal. We want to show people things they have never seen before!” said Claire Leonard, the effusive president of Planet Roller — the eccentric Paris-based organization responsible for bringing the rollerbladers to Yemen recently.

The  quirky band of enthusiasts, among them teenagers and sexagenarians, spent a little more than a week in Yemen, teaching local kids how to rollerblade, handing out extra pairs of skates and exploring a new culture. Their visit continued a trend toward youth-focused activities — encouraged by the Yemeni authorities — promoting tolerance as a “soft,” yet vital, form of international aid.

The French Cultural Center in Sanaa — funded by the French government — has launched a small theater program for local university students, with weekly break-dancing practice sessions and regular exhibits and symposiums where locals can display artwork, listen to lectures and speak their mind. Last fall, the German and French cultural centers in Sanaa partnered up to put on a concert featuring teenage boys performing a mixture of traditional Yemeni dance, hip-hop and rap, and some American aid groups have expressed interest in supporting a climbing and hiking club for young Yemenis to explore their own land.

“The idea is to give [young people] a place to start. Give them something that they can then take away and do on their own,” said Cloe Vaniscotte, who heads the cultural mission at the French Cultural Center. She estimates that although relatively small numbers of young people participate — usually between 20 and 25 kids — the “ripple effect” is greater. “They tell their friends and their families, and it spreads,” she said.