Making a difference
In 2007 a young skateboarder touched down in Kabul, determined to change the lives of the city’s impoverished youth. Skateistan, the skateboarding school he set up as a tool for empowerment, today reaches over 1,000 kids a week, turning street sellers int
Skateboarding for empowerment.
M erza Muhammadi dipped his shaking hands in the bucketful of freezing water, the action causing his fingers to burn as they shifted from uncomfortably cold to stingingly numb. Squeezing the damp dirty rag, he moved back to the clapped-out car, its windshield still partially frosted from the bitter temperatures that had descended overnight on the Afghan capital, Kabul. As his worn hands and chipped fingernails washed away the vehicle’s dirt and grime to reveal a faded electric blue, Merza looked to the clouded sky and willed the sun to shine again so that his bones might slowly thaw.
Washing cars on the sides of the capital’s hectic and hazardous roads wasn’t so gruelling in the summer months, although sometimes he admittedly cursed the levels of diesel fumes and dust swirling in the wake of roaring, rusting trucks. But the warmth of summer made the arduous toil for pitiless pennies almost bearable. Returning to the fruitless task of washing frozen with frozen, the then 17-yearold resigned himself to the fact that for now a cruel Afghan winter lay ahead. His chilled body, barely protected from the ruthless elements by a flimsy, frayed coat, would have to keep running like the worn vehicles he washed, so that he, as a young Afghan man, could continue to sustain himself and his family.
The future for Merza, as is the case for so many of Afghanistan’s impoverished and illiterate young, was as bleak and uncertain as the harsh winter months. In a city that is home to an estimated 50,000 street children, and in a country with one of the world’s highest illiteracy rates at around 30 per cent, hopes are few and far between for the youth whose desire for an education is but a distant dream.
Merza, however, was to be one of the lucky ones, his hapless future destined to change course when he was introduced by a friend to a small non-governmental organisation called Skateistan, a newly formed body looking to help Kabul’s kids get back on the straight and narrow with the simple, yet effective use of a skateboard.
“Life was very difficult at that time,” Merza tells the camera for the short film Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul. “Now I work at the skate
park providing skate training… it is solely because of the support of Skateistan that I am standing now.”
Skateistan, which is the first international development project to combine skateboarding with education, began its life as a grass-roots Sport for Development project on the streets of Kabul in 2007, when then aid worker and Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich witnessed the success he had at teaching a handful of kids how to board. Today it is a global, awardwinning not-for-profit organisation with projects in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Cambodia, touching the lives of thousands of children through the use of skateboarding as a means to bring about change.
“Our mission is to use skateboarding as a tool for empowerment,” says development manager at Skateistan, Alix Buck. “I think one of our biggest priorities is to connect skateboarding with education; it’s the hook that gets kids in the door. They want to come to Skateistan because it’s really fun and once here if they want to skateboard they have to participate in educational programming. So the idea is to provide education and access to education in a way that is attractive to the kids so you don’t have to fight to get them there.”
Aiming to empower the country’s five- to 18-year-olds, skateboarding is carried out within Skateistan’s two main centres. The first opened its doors in Kabul in 2009, offering local youths a 5,000-metre-square allinclusive skate park and educational facility on land donated by the Afghan National Olympic Committee.
The second facility now reaches kids in the north of the country, thanks to a recently launched state-of-the-art learning and skateboarding centre in Mazar-e-Sharif. Both centres offer a safe, fun, learning environment to the children who come through their doors.
“At Skateistan I don’t feel like my surroundings are ruined,” then 12-year-old street seller, Fazilla, tells the camera as it pans out over a city dump in which she lived, littered with waste, mud and debris. “I feel as though I am in a nice place.”
While participants at Skateistan come from Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, statistics show that 50 per cent of the students are street sellers, spending their days touting goods from bangles to bread amid the squalor of muddy markets. “We try to target the most vulnerable youths,” Alix says, “those that have the fewest opportunities, as they are the people who are not going to be in school.”
While recent literacy statistics for Afghan youth aged 15-24 revealed that 49 per cent of boys and only 18 per cent of girls are literate, within the bright, clean classrooms of the skate park, these young men and women are offered new opportunities through educational programmes that encompass topics from leadership to civic responsibility, multimedia to creative arts.
“We have three programmes,” says Alix. “The first is Skate and Create,
which gives kids one hour of skateboarding alongside an hour of education. That programme complements the public education system in subjects such as critical thinking, environment, and hygiene.
“The next is our Back to School (BTS) programme, which is accelerated learning to help kids who are out of school, have left school or who have never been to school, to get re-enrolled in the public education system. In Afghanistan, if you can’t pass the exams for the grade that you’re supposed to be in, then you can’t get into school. So, once you’ve left the public school system you don’t have many options for getting back in because you don’t have much hope of passing the exams. Our programme covers three grades in one year and we work in partnership with the Ministry of Education to help them pass the exams and get back into school.”
The 12-month programme sees street-selling kids and refugees attend classes at Skateistan five days a week. Upon completion they can apply to enter a government school, and so far 155 kids – boys and girls – have been successfully enrolled.
Skateistan’s programmes not only focus on getting kids back into school, they notably place a firm emphasis on involving and engaging girls. Within a patriarchal and conservative society – such as the one still existing in Afghanistan – it is often frowned upon for a girl to be engaged in sport.
During the rule of the Taliban (1996-2001), it was punishable by law for women to be seen not wearing an all-encompassing burqa in public. They were also banned from attending schools, wearing brightly coloured clothes, or laughing loudly. Much has changed in the country since those days but many barriers still remain for girls. Skateistan is one organisation that has a primary focus on heralding a promising future for females despite the many hurdles.
“I think one of the big challenges of working in Afghanistan is the gender imbalance,” admits Alix, “and we work extremely hard to maintain a high level of female participation because we believe that girls here have the most to gain through sport and education.” To date, of the 750
‘Skateistan has brought a new sport and culture to a country suffering from three decades of wars’
weekly students walking through Skateistan’s brightly coloured gates, 40 per cent of attendees are female, more than any other co-ed sport in Afghanistan. And in a country where girls were until recently forbidden from riding a bicycle, it is a remarkable achievement.
“It is not illegal for a girl to ride a bicycle in Afghanistan but it is viewed as culturally inappropriate,” Alix explains when asked why skateboarding has become acceptable.
“The way you have to sit to ride a bike is seen in the same way as riding a horse. Whereas a skateboard is not viewed as problematic because you are standing.”
In order to appease more traditional families whose daughters wish to attend skate lessons and educational programmes, Skateistan is careful to organise events in such a way that will be seen as socially suitable.
“We have separate boys’ days and girls’ days,” says Alix, “and half of those days are reserved for girls only, so we have only female staff and students. There are no males present, which keeps the families comfortable.
“We also have a student support officer,” she adds, “and her full-time job is to register the students and manage relationships with their families, reassuring them that we are doing everything in a way that is culturally appropriate.”
For some girls, however, attending Skateistan and openly skateboarding has had its hurdles.
“I believe people have negative thoughts [about it],” says Fazilla, “they disagree with girls wanting to pursue skateboarding as a hobby. My family is mostly on my side; however, my father disagrees. When I am skating on the streets I can feel people questioning my right to skate. Their opinions are meaningless to me. I really like skating and I won’t stop.”
Skateistan has not only brought change to the kids of Kabul and more recently Mazar-e-Sharif, it has brought a whole new sport and culture to a country buckling under the burden of almost three decades of brutal wars. Today, as Merza skates down Butcher’s Street in central Kabul, weaving past clucking hens, open-air hanging carcasses and cages of livestock, many Afghans from older generations stare out from under their cotton turbans, their eyes suspicious of the four-wheeled device. “People keep looking at our shoes and boards in a weird way,” says Merza,
laughing, “they think that they are attached to the boards through some sort of magnetic field.”
It’s no surprise they regard the contraption with such suspicion – Skateistan founder Oliver Percovich was the first man to bring the infamous street board to Afghanistan, a country that had culturally stood still at a time when the sport was gaining popularity during the 1990s.
“The thing that’s really interesting about skateboarding in Afghanistan is that no one has ever seen it before,” says Alix, “and no one has really heard of it. You have the stereotypes that come along with skateboarding in the UK and the States but none of that exists here because no one has any idea what it is.”
She is quick to reiterate, however, that the sometimes-negative connotations that can be aligned with the street sport have not piggybacked their mission into Afghanistan.
“We don’t want to bring the skating culture to Afghanistan, we want the kids here to make it something that is their own. We don’t show skate videos or skate magazines, we just have kids doing their own thing with these boards and figuring it out themselves…We have international staff here who are skateboarders who can show them the different techniques but we aren’t here to bring over the Americanised culture of skateboarding. We let them own the direction in which they take the sport.”
And ownership is key to the success with which Skateistan has immersed itself into daily Afghan life. It has been seven years since its founder first dropped his board on Afghan soil and five years since the Olympic-approved facility opened its doors to the youths of Kabul. Despite turbulent times and tribal disparities that still course through the veins of the country, Skateistan has managed to remain a safe haven for the youth.
“Security is an obvious challenge in Afghanistan,” says Alix, “but we have been able to manage this by maintaining good relations with all of our local stakeholders, beneficiaries, the Olympic committee, local mullahs and the students’ families, and always ensuring that we are delivering our project in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way.”
She adds, “having [local] people who know the country and know the project to be taking ownership makes sense and it is more sustainable. It doesn’t make sense to be sending foreigners to Afghanistan for the rest of time. I don’t have the skills that an Afghan has, my Dari will never be as good as an Afghan’s and [Skateistan] is not just a message coming from the headquarters in Berlin saying ‘This is how it’s going to be done’.”
So today the Skateistan facility in Kabul is entirely managed and run by local Afghan staff and volunteers, 70 per cent of which are former students. Merza, now 21 and one of the oldest Skateistan members, is today the Kabul facility’s sports coordinator. He is the first Afghan skate instructor, is recognised as one of the country’s best skateboarders, and is widely regarded as a national hero for the young aspiring Afghan skaters.
Aside from promoting skateboarding, education and the equal rights of boys and girls in Afghanistan, from a young age Merza has carried a belief in positive change for his country.
“We the people of Afghanistan must unite to rebuild the country,” he says. “I don’t want war anymore.” Merza is just one shining example of the difference Skateistan is making to the hundreds of children who walk through its doors every week. Last year 14-yearold long-time Skateistan member Medina was selected as a representative for the Children’s Assembly in Afghan Parliament, presenting on key issues identified by children from nine provinces. The many success stories are a reflection of the valiant efforts of a young skateboarder from the States back in 2007. Now, thanks to Skateistan, no dream is too big for the once street-selling kids of Kabul.
‘We aren’t here to bring the Americanised culture of skateboarding. We let the mown the sport’
If you would like to know more about Skateistan or help in any way visit www. skateistan.org
The sport has helped overcome social barriers in the country
Skateistan has helped empower girls such as Fazilla andWahila
Children are educated on topics ranging from art to leadership
40 per cent of its members are girls