Skateistan: How skateboarding took off with Afghan kids

July 17, 2012

It’s no surprise that in a world full of rules most kids want to do something with no organisation, and no adults. “This country has more restrictions than just about any other,” Oliver Percovich says, explaining how his own passion for freedom and fun led to groups of boys and girls flying across Afghanistan’s dusty relics of war and occupation on skateboards.

At 37, Percovich is getting a bit old to be a skateboard dude. He picked up the hobby growing up in Australia and Papua New Guinea, and arrived in Afghanistan five years ago with a board. Percovich hadn’t come to work for a nongovernmental organisation or serve with the army — he was following his girlfriend.

The relationship didn’t work out, but a group of kids were soon congregating around the empty Masood fountain in Kabul to watch him do tricks on his board, and have a go themselves.

“I gave twice as much time to the girls as the boys,” Percovich says.
The sessions became so popular that he started a nonprofit group called Skateistan and opened the country’s first skate park. “I started it, but they own it,” he says of the 400 young Afghanis he works with (300 more are on the waiting list).

So far Skateistan has managed to manoeuvre around the country’s cultural and ethnic tensions. “We just stick to skateboarding. We don’t export a culture, we don’t give them clothes,” he says, although for every hour on a board they have to spend another hour in the classroom getting an education.

Suleiman may be the neatest 14-year-old skateboarding instructor in the world. He’s wearing an ironed blue shirt and his black hair is carefully combed. “I started skateboarding two years ago, and now I’m an instructor and classroom teacher,” he says, adding that he can do a nollie, a kickflip, and is pretty good on the ramps. “My heart is in skateboarding, and I want to teach the others everything I know.”

Suleiman’s friend Rahmatullah is in Year 12 and is also an instructor. “We’re in three provinces at the moment, but my dream is that boys and girls in every province will be able to take part,” he says.

Percovich has no plans to leave the country after foreign troops pull out in 2014, but he hopes by then that his local team will be fully in charge.
Percovich and the Skateistan team are about to visit London for the Beyond Sport summit next week, which is hosted by Tony Blair, among others, and aims to reward groups that use sport to promote social change.

Nick Keller, Beyond Sport’s founder, says: “I don’t think sport is a panacea for all ills, but it can be a tool for peace-building, breaking down barriers, and health.” Or as the Skateistan kids put it — it’s their one chance to do their own thing.

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