Four Wheels and a Vision

Written by Muhammad Omar Iftikhar  •  Features  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Will Skateistan secure the future of Afghanistan’s children during unstable times?

Devastation has become synonymous with Afghanistan’s state post-9/11. While the country is now gradually moving away from its dark past and embracing modernity, Afghanistan’s youth remain wanting. With uncertainty looming ahead in the post-2014 scenario, community building has become the primary objective. Education, in many different forms, can transform the lives of Afghan children. Today, young Afghans readily take to the concept of Skateistan, one such initiative where children receive skateboarding lessons along with classroom learning.

Skateistan was founded by an Australian professional skateboarder, Oliver Percovich, who visited Afghanistan in 2007. Impressed by the enthusiasm displayed by Afghan children to learn skateboarding, Percovich realized that local children, especially girls, lacked the opportunities for growth and skateboarding could become a viable sport in community building. Skateistan began as a Kabul-based Afghan NGO that now functions as an international non-profit charity. Internally displaced children comprise nearly half of the students enrolled at Skateistan, who lack access to proper schooling and nearly 40% of them are girls.

With a dearth of formal education facilities in Afghanistan and the academic infrastructure in shambles, Skateistan attempts to guide the youth in breaking the shackles of defeat. The project provides access to education, focusing especially on girls and working children, develops leadership opportunities and builds friendship, trust, and social capital.

Skateistan’s efforts bore fruit in 2009 when it received the first prize in ‘Architecture for Sport with a Social Outcome’ in the ‘Architecture for Humanity and Gamechanger’ competition for Nike. During the same year, Skateistan received the ‘NGO of the year Award’ at the ‘Peace and Sport Forum’ in Monaco; while in 2012, Beyond Sports, a London-based global NGO presented Skateistan with the ‘Innovation through Sport Award.’

The Skateistan Project aims to eliminate class differences, break ethnic and socioeconomic barriers and generate social settings where street children study alongside those from affluent backgrounds. Even with a modern syllabus and a co-education setup, the school holds classes for girls and boys on different days. Students attend the school once a week for an hour for skateboarding and for an hour for classroom learning. The skateboarding sessions include 10 minutes of warm-up exercises, 30 minutes of instruction and 10 minutes of free skating that allows children to overcome their fears and engage in self-learning.

Specially designed classroom lessons create harmony instead of bridging the children over academic qualification and social status. Creative arts projects such as photography, painting, theatre, and puppetry help the children break free from myopia and embrace originality in thought.

Skateistan constructed an all-inclusive Skateistan Park and an educational facility in October 2009. The Afghan National Olympic Committee (ANOC) donated the land while IOU (Innovative - Original - Unique) Ramps built the interior. Skateistan has emerged from the ashes of destruction as Afghanistan’s first skateboarding school and aims to build more skateboarding facilities across the country where the youth can transcend social barriers and become part of a united Afghan community. The school draws nearly 350 students in the age bracket of 15-17 comprising kids who hail from diverse ethnic backgrounds such as Pashtun, Hazara, Uzbek and Tajik. Skateboarding is gaining popularity in Afghanistan where football is the other popular sport. Other sports played in the country include cricket, volleyball, boxing, ice skating, bowling, and chess. Afghan players seldom play international matches except for participating in the Olympics or playing cricket tournaments; however, they do compete at the national level.

Although Skateistan is an Afghan NGO, its international presence in 14 countries with over 250 volunteers is a testimony to its success. In 2010, volunteers raised nearly USD $200,000 worldwide that helped refurbish the NGO’s facilities. ANOC is the front-runner in providing Skateistan with a 10-year land lease for its Kabul facility and has arranged land for a second facility in Mazar-e-Sharif in 2011. Oliver Percovich acts as an advisor to the ANOC, facilitating international opportunities and promoting sports in Afghanistan. Skateistan engages the youth in cross-cultural activities, education and empowerment programs.

Educational partnerships of Skateistan include a multimedia library and international youth exchange project funded by AusAID, and Skateistan’s Youth, Arts, Peace! (YAP!) supported by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). In addition, Skateistan joined hands with the French NGO Pour une Sourire D’Enfant in Phnom Penh to help build Cambodia’s first skatepark in February 2011.

Afghanistan is gradually accepting innovation and pursuing academic opportunities for children. However, the threat from fundamental factions still haunts international investors. There might be a change in the extremists’ heart, who have survived a decade under the control of the U.S.-led NATO forces and have seen development work in all sectors. Nevertheless, terror can strike at any moment and Skateistan must take precautionary measures to avoid any unforeseen incidents. However, according to the founders, deploying security guards at the campus will send a negative image that Skateistan has a selective admission policy, which is one reason why the project has never had any such security plan. 

Muhammad Omar Iftikhar is Assistant Editor at SouthAsia. He writes on issues and social activism.

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