Skateboarding may once have been associated with counterculture and non-conformity. But in Cambodia, skateboarders are using the sport to engage some of the country’s most marginalized children.
When Australian Steve Tierney first moved to Cambodia, he assumed his skateboarding days would be on hold. But now he's found himself in an unlikely position: He's a volunteer skateboard instructor in a country that's barely heard of the sport.
Tierney still remembers the looks he got from bemused Cambodians, the first time he rode his board around Phnom Penh.
"All the moto riders were coming past and stopping and watching us," Tierney recalled. "It kind of felt like they'd never seen skateboarding before. They were all in complete shock we were there and doing this, probably trying to figure out what the hell we were doing. It was like the introduction of skateboarding to the world."
Skateboarding is still very much in its infancy here on Phnom Penh's bumpy and hectic streets. But on the grounds of a local children's charity, Cambodia's first skateboard park is being put to use.
About a dozen young skaters don helmets and pads, before hurtling themselves full-speed up wooden ramps. Instructors like Tierney are teaching these young Cambodians how to ollie and grind - and the finer points of flying down a mini half-pipe.
This skatepark was built by a group called Skateistan Cambodia. The organization has roots in Afghanistan, where an Australian with German roots founded the NGO to bring skateboarding, and education, to underprivileged youth. Last year, the group opened operations in Cambodia, fueled by Skateistan's main fundraising arm, based in Berlin.
Skateistan Cambodia now works with more than 120 at-risk children in Phnom Penh, teaching them how to skateboard. Students like Sou Bunthey are eager to learn. "Style. I like the style," said Bunthey, a slender 15-year-old. "When people watch us while we're practicing skateboarding, I feel good. Not everybody can do this."
But while the teenagers here are certainly drawn to the sport, Skateistan's ultimate goals go beyond merely teaching skateboarding.
Using sport for development
Cambodia is a country in recovery. It's rebuilding after decades of civil war and the tumultuous rule of the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, during which at least one-quarter of the population died from execution, overwork and starvation.
Today, the uneven rebuilding process can be seen here in the capital. While poverty has been reduced over the last decade, many poor families have been left behind. Rights groups say there are at least 40,000 families living in poverty in Phnom Penh. The children of the poorest of these families can find themselves working on the streets at a young age - begging for money, selling books or trinkets in tourist areas, and often not going to school.
They are among the most marginalized groups in the country - at risk, and hard to reach for social service providers.
But Skateistan is hoping to use skateboarding to engage some of these children. In the West, skateboarding may once have been associated with counterculture and non-conformity. But in Cambodia, skateboarders want to use the sport to help empower kids who often lack the confidence - and the opportunities - to succeed.
The group partners with local NGOs to target at-risk youth. For them, skateboarding may be the hook, but it's also a tool to engage a hard-to-reach population.
Learning life lessons
American Rory Burke started working with Skateistan this year. Many of the kids skating here today are students at the NGO where this skatepark has been built. That NGO offers underprivileged kids a full-time education, and job training. For many, skateboarding can be an incentive to stick with the program, stay in school - and away from drugs, crime and the pressures of the street.
At other groups Skateistan partners with, the children are faced with even harsher conditions - living on the street, collecting trash or recyclables, or begging. For them, Burke says, skateboarding can be a first point of contact for healthcare and social workers. It's an opportunity to establish a positive relationship in an unforgiving environment.
No matter what background the kids are coming from, Burke says skateboarding can teach vital life lessons, like the importance of perseverance. Getting on the board for the first time, he says, can be scary.
"It kind of teaches them, hey you're going to fall down a bunch, but you've got to get back up," Burke said. "At the end there's a little bit of a reward. You're going to have a lot of fun with this."
It's a lesson that 17-year-old Sam Meath, who goes by the name Simon, is happy to have learned, even though his family doesn't understand why he skateboards. "My mother says skateboarding is useless," he said. "I think she says that because she doesn't know what skateboarding is. But for me, I know. I like it."
Simon started skating last year. He says he was inspired after watching seasoned skateboarders flying off jumps.
Now, after a year of hard work, Simon is one of the more talented skaters here. These days, Simon has graduated to Skateistan's advanced class; he's also a monitor, watching over and teaching younger kids just starting out on skateboards. He's learned that he can overcome challenges through hard work.
"Since that day, I was committed to learning," he said. "I thought, I have to do this and improve. And now I can do it."
That's the kind of life lesson that Skateistan is hoping skateboarding can teach at-risk kids. It may be a small step when considering what Cambodia faces, but Burke said, it makes a world of difference for some of the kids here.
"My thought is that if we can empower a few of these students to do something different and to impact their family and their community in a new way, then you're starting in the right way," he said. "I don't think you can take a wholesale approach to helping out a country like Cambodia. It's been through so much. But if you can help out one or two people and they change and they help out one or two people, I think that's the way you kind of start. I think development works the best that way."
Author: Irwin Loy, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Editor: Sarah Steffen