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

Friday - - Contents -

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. skateis­

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

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