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Peace on wheels

May 27, 2010

Until a few years ago, skateboarding was unknown in Afghanistan. The organization Skateistan is now combining the sport with learning and peacebuilding excercises geared at youth in war-torn Kabul.

a boy practices skateboarding tricks on the outskirts of Kabul
Skateistan began with informal lessons for teensImage: Max Henninger

Oppressive Taliban rule, war and ongoing conflict - that's the world Afghanistan's youth have known all their lives. There is little room for fun and hobbies because being a child in war-torn Kabul can also mean working to help make ends meet at home.

At the same time, privileged kids who have the chance to go to school are often kept from playing outdoors. Divided by gender, ethnicity and economic classes, children in Kabul have little opportunity to interact with those different from themselves.

Skateboarding may seem like an unlikely remedy to this host of problems. But the youth organization Skateistan, founded by German-Australian Oliver Percovich, provides a convincing model of development work.

Out for a spin

These days the empty fountain in Kabul's Mekroyan neighborhood is a stomping ground for adventurous city kids on loud, urethane wheels. But when Oliver Percovich followed his then-girlfriend from Melbourne to Afghanistan in 2007, the fountain was nothing but a cracked, concrete basin - an attractive spot, the couple thought, to take their skateboards out for a spin.

At that time skateboarding was something kids in Kabul had never seen. While the sport is practically old hat to youth in the West, everywhere the couple went in Kabul, they found themselves surrounded by flocks of children and teenagers wanting to give skateboarding a go.

A young man practices skateboarding on a ramp in Skateistan's indoor skate park.
Germany gave the biggest donation to the skatepark's constructionImage: Jacob Simkin

And so the idea for Skateistan was born. In 2009, together with German skateboarder Max Henninger, and with support from a handful of embassies in Kabul, Percovich opened a full-fledged skateboarding youth center for boys and girls of all backgrounds - unique in a city more accustomed to seeing combat in its streets than children playing sports together.

Anything you can do

Skateistan claims that Afghanistan's unfamiliarity with skateboarding is actually what makes the activity such an effective tool in youth work.

"There's no stigma attached to it," 25-year-old volunteer Sophie Friedel explained to Deutsche Welle. Friedel, who came to Kabul from Germany to work with Skateistan for six months, explained that skateboarding being introduced to Kabul by a man and a woman, "made it acceptable for a male and a female to take part in the sport at the same time, whereas all the other sports were introduced and shown by males only."

Gaining the respect and trust of the community was also paramount. According to Skateistan's Max Henninger, the group got confirmation from Kabul's Sunni religious leader Mullah Shams Rahman and Shiite leader Mullah Mohsini that women practicing sports was in harmony with the Koran.

"Mullah Shams Rahman said in his speech at the skate park's opening that the prophet Mohammed even encouraged his second wife Aysha to be physically active," Henninger told Deutsche Welle.

Skateistan also stresses that its presentation of skateboarding is adapted to youth work in Afghanistan in that it is free of western clichés and non-competitive.

a girl's foot on a leopard-pattern skateboard
Skateistan wants its participants to develop their own skate cultureImage: Jacob Simkin

"In the West," Henninger said, "skateboarders are attributed a certain look and style. That's not the case in Afghanistan, and we leave that out completely. It's not about importing culture – quite the opposite. We just provide a little board with four wheels and let the kids develop their own skateboarding and youth culture."

Meanwhile, Friedel said, "all the other sports they play here are quite competitive and brutal, like horsefighting and cockfighting. Through skateboarding they can develop themselves. They can test their ability and see where their boundaries are."

International support

While many social aid programs in Afghanistan are aimed at adults, Henninger emphasized the need for social programs targeted at youth. "These are the people who will be responsible for rebuilding Afghanistan," he said, adding that 50 percent of the country is under 16 years old and 75 percent is under 25.

For this reason, Skateistan aims to be more than just a sports center. The organization also distributes vitamins and deworming supplements to its participants and gives a variety of enrichment classes ranging in topics from English to drawing to team- and peacebuilding exercises. With around 260 kids between the ages of five and 17 regularly coming through its doors, Skateistan has a good chance at making a small-scale contribution to the future of Afghanistan.

Skateistan's unique efforts attracted the attention of Kabul's diplomatic community after a year of informally organized, nearly-daily skateboarding events at public locations in the city. With the help of donations, the organization opened its 1,750 square meter (18,836 square foot) indoor skatepark in October 2009, on land donated by the Afghan Olympic Committee using funds from Canada, Denmark, Germany and Norway.

The building contains not only the skatepark with ramps, but a kitchen, an office, changing rooms with showers and two classrooms. While Denmark and Norway are the project's biggest ongoing donors, the German Foreign Office provided the lion's share for the skatepark's construction, with a total donation of 100,000 euros ($129,000).

A group of girls sits in one of Skateistan's classrooms, following a lesson by one Afghan and one foreign volunteer.
Classroom work is central to Skateistan's missionImage: Max Henninger

Silke Bellmann, a press officer at the German Embassy in Kabul, told Deutsche Welle that sponsoring Skateistan and organizations like the Afghanistan National Institute of Music is a good way to "promote Germany in Afghanistan and to give a positive image of our country."

However, she insisted that it's not just about self-promotion.

"Skateistan gives the children a bit of untroubled, light-hearted fun – and distracts them from their, at times, very hard day-to-day life in a city that has suffered decades of civil war," Bellmann said.

Part of the hard day-to-day life in Kabul is the pressure on many adolescents to work. Although for many of Skateistans's kids this may be the most they see of a classroom, Henninger said that Skateistan does not see itself as a school replacement.

In light of this situation, Skateistan has begun an initiative to send its poorer participants back to school by giving their families financial aid so the children do not have to work. Skateistan hopes someday to see all of its approximately 260 kids attending school regularly.

A memorable exchange

Meanwhile, Friedel said that the participants who attend school and those who do not have a lot to learn from each other.

"The educated kids can help the street children in the classroom with writing and reading - whereas in the skate park, the uneducated kids are normally the better skaters, because they don't have much fear," she said. "They always help the uneducated kids with new tricks."

A boy sits in Skateistan's classroom, drawing with a pencil
Skateistan wants to see all its participants in schoolImage: Jacob Simkin

Exchange is taking place on other levels, too. One aspect of the organization that attracts parents is its internationality; the center is currently run with the help of volunteers from Australia, Germany and the US, as well as Afghan nationals. Perhaps more importantly for Kabul's splintered society, Skateistan brings together poor kids and rich kids, boys and girls, Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Hazaras who would otherwise have nothing to do with each other.

In fact, Friedel said that the most memorable part of her six month stay in Afghanistan has been seeing children from different backgrounds become good friends - something that must happen on a larger scale for the sake of the country's future.

"At the beginning they wouldn't even talk to each other," Friedel said.

"Just seeing educated kids hugging a street kid and giving her a kiss on the cheek was very rewarding."

Author: David Levitz

Editor: Anke Rasper