The Makroyan fountain in Kabul, Afghanistan. No water to be found, but if you take a closer look you will notice traces of wheels in the fountain basin. Occasionally some Afghan youngsters whizz by: boys wearing colourful shoes and a cool helmet, but also girls dressed in traditional clothing including elbow and knee pads. Skating has become a true hype in Afghanistan. And this fountain is the place where it all started a few years ago.
When Oliver Percovich moved from Australia to Afghanistan in 2007, he never imagined to be sharing his passion with so many Afghan people. Though he immediately became the centre of attention when he took out his skateboard and performed a couple of tricks in the dried-up fountain. The eyes of many Afghan street children started to glimmer out of curiosity. Both boys and girls were genuinely interested in this new sport, and they were very eager to learn how to skate like “Ollie”. It did not take long until the bravest children tried out the board. It started with three skateboards and a few cosy lessons in and around the fountain, but the huge success was unstoppable and Oliver started to dream bigger.
Skateboarding as a solution
Because of the enthusiasm he encountered, Oliver was encouraged to set up a skateboarding school. He also took this decision given the fact that children in Afghanistan do not have many opportunities to participate in fun activities or sports during their spare time. It is important to remember that almost 50% of the population is under the age of 15, and 70% is even younger than 27. Reaching out to this group of people is a very difficult task, but skateboarding might offer a solution.
Skateboarding in Afghanistan? It is a risky bet, but definitely a good one. Especially when we think about the girls growing up in Afghanistan’s conservative society. Until 2001, it was forbidden for them to practise a sport or even go to school. Eventually the Taliban regime collapsed, yet girls still receive very limited chances. They are not allowed to ride a bicycle for example.
And here lies the advantage of an unknown sport such as skateboarding: no one in Afghanistan participated in this sport before, and this is why Oliver could introduce it to boys and girls alike. Skateboarding has, without a doubt, a positive effect on the Afghan girls. They feel like they have gained a new form of freedom of movement and it also stimulates gender equality. Fortunately the Afghan society has no problems with girls riding a skateboard, it is considered to be a modest and honourable sport.
A safe haven in a war-torn city
Oliver started to bring more and more skateboards to Kabul, and thus the first skateboarding school in Afghanistan arose: Skateistan. The National Afghan Olympic Committee donated a piece of land where an indoor skate park was built. 29 October 2009 marked a milestone in the history of Skateistan, because on that day the official opening of the skate park took place. The park became a safe haven for boys and girls living in the turbulent city of Kabul, an oasis where they can skate away their sorrows.
However, to establish a successful project like this in Afghanistan means to be confronted with a lot of challenges. Oliver wants to address boys and girls with his skateboarding school, and this requires some deliberate measures. According to the Afghan tradition, girls aged 12 and over are not allowed to be in contact with boys in public. Therefore Skateistan has designed a separate skate park specially for girls, where they can skate freely, practise their tricks and simply enjoy. In Oliver’s opinion it is needless to say that the culture and traditions of Afghanistan should be respected. He does not consider this a disadvantage, on the contrary, in his opinion it’s the Afghan girls who are the most fearless skateboarders of Skateistan.
The “Back To School” program
Skateboarding is a springboard to so much more. The sport unites youngsters from different ages, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. They build up self-confidence, learn to deal with tolerance and develop friendship bonds which transcend all social barriers. Skating leads to empowerment and engages the Afghan youth to grasp opportunities in their lives. Those who turn out to be brilliant in skateboarding even get the chance to work as an instructor at Skateistan in the future.
But Skateistan does not just consist of skateboarding classes. In addition, it offers the “Back To School” programme. Skateistan presents an ambitious goal: to encourage Afghan boys and girls to enroll in a public school after completing the program. About 400 Afghan children and youngsters between 5 and 18 years attend the skateboarding school weekly. 40% of them are girls and 50% of them are street children. Most of the students have never experienced a day in school before. This is why the lessons are organised in a creative manner. It’s called art-based education, which means learning through workshops on photography, film, painting, theatre and more. Many students bravely defy the harsh winter cold of Kabul in order to arrive at the skateboarding school. This is just one example of their undeniable love for skateboarding and their willingness to give a positive twist to their lives.
The world was clearly moved by Skateistan and its success. In 2009, Orlando Von Einsiedel directed a short documentary about the project: “To Live and Skate in Kabul”. Two years later he shot a movie entitled “Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul”. There is also a book: “Skateistan: The Tale of Skateboarding in Afghanistan”.
The two documentaries and the book aim to focus our attention on the destiny of children growing up in Afghanistan. They offer a unique perspective on the lives of several Afghan youngsters, a new generation of skateboarders who are trying to build up a better life in a country devastated by war. But they also confirm that Skateistan, a wise choice of combining skateboarding and reasonable education, can grow into something to hold on to in the Afghan society.
Since the launch of Skateistan in Kabul, a similar project has been created in Cambodia. The rest of Afghanistan was also touched by the success of Skateistan. In May 2013 a school and a skate park has been built in Mazar-e-Sharif, a city in Northern Afghanistan. In the meantime already over 100 students have registered there.
Oliver is very keen to continue his efforts for Skateistan with the same everlasting passion and dedication. Thanks to his project, many of Afghanistan’s youngsters have been offered a life changing opportunity. The safe skate park and the creative lessons keep the children away from the streets and from the daily drama in Afghanistan. Oliver is hopeful that his students will turn their backs on waging war in the future, and that they will stick to skateboarding as a way out. It is obviously no coincidence that the logo of Skateistan depicts an assault riffle being crushed by a skateboard.
This December Skateistan is aiming to raise 35,000 USD and they need your help to KEEP SKATEISTAN ROLLING. By joining their biannual fundraising drive you can empower Afghan and Cambodian youth. More information here.
This post is also available in: Dutch