Skating in Afghanistan: Wheels of change

One NGO is using the power of skateboarding to get Afghanistan's children off the streets and into education  

Kabul is a conservative city. Home to some 5 million people, Afghanistan’s capital is estimated to be the world’s fifth-fastest growing city, but retains many of the social and economic fissures created when the Taliban regime held power. The sight of a gaggle of young boys crowding the street alongside headscarf-clad young girls then, is still unusual. Rarer still, is that they’re skateboarding.

Skateistan began life in 2007 in an abandoned, dish-shaped fountain in Kabul, with just three skateboards and a handful of fascinated children. The project was the brainchild of Oliver Percovich, a new arrival to the country, who saw urban sport as an innovative way to reach young Afghans and slice through barriers of gender, class and ethnicity.

“Skateboarding was so new to Afghanistan that there were no cultural barriers to it, particularly for girls. It was a sort of loophole”“It really struck me that half of the population was under 16, and that this was an opportunity to work with young kids over the long-term. I was convinced that they could change the country,” says Australia-born Percovich. “Skateboarding was so new to Afghanistan that there were no cultural barriers to it, particularly for girls. It was a sort of loophole.”

From offering small, free classes in public spaces, Skateistan launched the country’s first skate park in 2009, built on land donated by the Afghan National Olympic Committee. The park and accompanying school cost $350,000, funded largely through donations from foreign embassies, while big skateboarding brands contributed kit.

“The most important thing was to build trust and social capital with the local community,” says Percovich. “If it made sense to the local families, then that was what would make the financial capital work.”

Today some 450 children, aged from 5 to 18, attend classes each week in the giant hangar, schooled by staff not only in skating, but also in maths, Islamic studies and Dari, the local dialect. More than half the students are street-working kids, while nearly 40 per cent are girls. The waiting list is 200-strong.

“Street kids often have little access to education, because it is more profitable for their families if they beg,” says Percovich. “The children can earn more than $10 a day begging, while their parents only earn $40 a month. We use skateboarding as a hook to get kids into good quality education. But if students don’t attend classes, we give the place to another kid. We aren’t just a drop-in centre.”

In particular, Skateistan’s ‘Back to School’ scheme aims to funnel children back into Afghanistan’s public school system. The course crams three years of schooling into one, allowing graduates to enroll in the fourth grade at local schools. To date, 110 Skateistan students have returned to mainstream education and Percovich hopes to register another 120 children in the programme in 2014.

In less than seven years, Skateistan has flourished, launching projects in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, South Africa and, since 2012, in Cambodia. Funding is raised through foreign  embassies and online campaigns, though Percovich is keen to stress the need for new donors. Its operations in Kabul are now entirely locally run; of the project’s 25 staff, 23 are former students.

Female instructor Fazila Shirindel is among the success stories. The teenager began as a student, taking part in street skating sessions, until her poverty-struck family removed her from school so she could earn a wage. In response, Skateistan took her on as an instructor with a monthly salary of $60, enabling her both to re-enroll in school and contribute to the family income. Today, the 15-year-old is aiming high. “I want to be the director of Skateistan,” she says, young, fearless, and ambitious.

To learn more about Skateistan's work, click here.