- Published on Monday, 07 February 2011 22:24
In most countries, skateboards bring to mind delinquent youths and a rebellious counterculture, usually fighting against some hyperbolic Norman Rockwell-esc society. But in Afghanistan, skateboarding can be a matter of life and death – literally.
In Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city, one organization is using skateboarding as a way to lift the city’s youth out of the bleak situation they face in a war-torn country. Skateistan, founded in 2007 by Oliver Percovich, uses skateboards as a way to bring together a generation of children who have grown up knowing nothing but conflict and violence.
In Afghanistan, 50% of the population is under the age of 16, and 75% is under the age of 25. Percovich and his cohorts saw a potentially lost generation and decided to give them an outlet to have fun and avoid falling into the traps of despair and violence.
Alongside the skateboarding, the organization promotes education. At Skateistan, the kids drive the teaching agenda. They have asked for more teachers so that they can learn English and how to use a computer – and, at each step, they push to learn more.
“How can you access education for the youth, how can they learn to develop a voice and get to where they want to get to. They can do that in a lot of ways, through the channel of sport,” Percovich told me in an exclusive interview. “Many street-working children have never held a pen before, but they can take part in a soccer match. I can jump on a skateboard with a five year-old Afghan girl. We’ve got a different religion, different culture, different socio-economic background. We can’t be more unalike. But we’re the same on a skateboard. We both fall off together. That gives us an instant connection.”
Despite its status as a foreign-created entity in the heart of Afghanistan- a center of political corruption and violence- Skateistan has enjoyed a high level of protection and autonomy in what it does.
“Nobody’s taking action against us. We’ve been skateboarding with girls in public places for three years. We’ve got the support of prominent mullahs. We’ve got the support of government,” Percovich said. “We’ve got support from lots of different sides, basically because it’s not actually seen as something that’s not appropriate.”
Percovich sees Skateistan’s continued success to be a result of its mission to use skateboarding as a way to get kids an education and build cooperation, not to simply rage against any system.
“If we went with a skateboard culture to Afghanistan, we wouldn’t be accepted at all,” he said. “All we’re doing is going with a board that rolls, something that can then give access to a whole lot of different young people to do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”
One thing that Skateistan has had to work hard to combat is the feeling of despair in the country. Growing up amid constant violence, many of the children at Skateistan have to learn to find opportunities and not get caught up in a bleak situation.
“This nihilism is coming from the parents. Because there is influence from Pakistan, from Iran, from the U.S… Afghans blame them for all of the problems they have. It’s so self-defeating,” Percovich said. “It might be true that there is a lot of foreign influence in the country, but what they try to concentrate on is one small success at a time. How do you build…self-esteem isn’t the right word… but it’s about believing in yourself, that you can change things.” Percovich sees a promising future for Afghanistan’s youth. If they can be given the tools they need to succeed, he said, they can do a lot more for the country than anyone else.
“I think the kids have something that doesn’t hold them back the way the adults are held back. They have their own motives – the kids have rather pure ones. What do they want? They want to stay in their country and build their country. They want jobs. They want to help people. They’ve got much clearer and purer intentions,” he said. “Maybe they are the best people to make a small step forward. I’ve never heard such amazing political commentary as I’ve heard from a 13 year-old Afghan boy. I highly doubt there is an intelligence agency that can put it as succinctly as he could.”
It’s that commitment to doing good in the world that led Skateistan to make a film. Orlando von Einseidel’s short movie To Live and Skate Kabul, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival alongside the Iranian election-focused documentary The Green Wave, is a look into how Skateistan has changed the lives of the kids of Kabul. Visually dynamic and very focused, it not only paints a picture of what life is like in the middle of a war, but how the kids growing up in that environment are finding a way to express themselves and grow. The short film is more focused on the kids involved and their lives, and it achieves that quite well in its limited time frame.
A full-length documentary, SKATEiSTAN – Four Wheel and a Board in Kabul, premiered at the end of January in the film festival circuit. It focuses more on the formation of Skateistan, and it’s initial history in 2008 and 2009. As Skateistan continues to grow, Percovich sees its mission as unchanging. He and everyone involved want to not only help the children of Kabul find a better life than their situation might otherwise afford them, but to help the rest of the world see that the Afghan children are no different than them.
“It’s connecting. When somebody in the U.S. sees an Afghan kid on a skateboard and sees an adult together with them, they can relate to that image,” he said. “If they see an Afghan with a gun or a tank, they can’t relate to that. They might see it on TV, but they don’t know that [personally]. It can bypass so many things; they can see a personal connection.”By Nicholas Slayton, Aslan Media News Content ManagerWatch the video here
You can learn more about Skateistan and support the organization by visiting their website.