“What’s it like to grow up working on the streets in a war zone, or to spend the first 15 years of your life pretending to be a boy?
How does it feel to be one of the first skateboarders in a country, and at the same time a girl in a conservative Muslim society?
In a nation divided along ethnic and gender lines, how do art, education and skateboarding intersect to create new possibilities for change?”
These are the powerful questions posed by Skateistan, an award-winning international NGO in Afghanistan, that also aims to provide solutions to these issues by promoting equality and trust using a seemingly simple object – a skateboard. Connecting vulnerable youth to education, Skateistan uses skateboarding as a tool to empower youth in Afghanistan, especially girls, to create new opportunities and spark the potential for change in the region.
Whatever you’re doing, if you’re doing it awesomely on wheels, chances are people’s heads are going to turn.
In Afghanistan, however, spotting a woman behind wheels of any kind is more shocking than Kim Kardashian’s 72 day marriage to Kris Humphris. Through the unique NGO, resilient kids in the region have discovered the silver lining of living in a conservative, war-torn nation through the hook and appeal of skateboarding.
“It shocked me that girls didn’t ride bicycles because it was deemed culturally inappropriate,” Percovich told Bustle. “Girls also are not allowed to play soccer or volleyball, fly kites, or participate in Buzkashi, the country’s national sport, because they are all only for boys.”
Launched in 2007 by Australian Oliver Percovich and some of his friends, Skateistan originally started as impromptu skateboarding sessions with local boys and girls.
“When I saw it was possible for young girls to skateboard in the streets, this was a huge surprise,” Percovich said. “I realized that this was a loophole. Since skateboarding was brand new to the country, nobody had had a chance to say girls couldn’t do it. It’s not seen as a thing or a sport for males because no one really knew about it. We simply do it.”
By 2009, Percovich helped construct a state of the art skate park and educational facility where more than 400 children come to skate and attend classes every week as one of the largest sporting organizations accessible to women in Afghanistan.Using skateboarding as a powerful yet fun way to engage and empower marginalized youth in Afghanistan, Skateistan serves as a gateway to education, cross-cultural interaction and personal empowerment programs.
Rather than pay premium price for a private education, these deprived children are presented with an unbeatable opportunity to gain a unique education, develop social capital and have fun through their new-found sense of empowerment. Some of the classes featured in Skateistan’s program include English lessons, art classes, a disabled class, youth leadership and even a “Back to School” program that helps out of school youth from impoverished families enroll or re-enroll in the public school system.
“It’s hard to be a girl in Afghanistan, most people think that girls should be in their homes, just cooking, working at home. Skateistan is a really great opportunity for us,” Zurhana Stanekzai told Al Jazeera when she was 13 years old. “It’s kind of freedom, we feel free, we feel like we are equal with everybody else.”Thriving by thinking outside the box and expanding beyond it, the organization has spread beyond Afghanistan’s borders into full-time programming for Cambodian youth in Phnom Penh, a learning-cum-skateboarding center in Mazar-e-Sharif, Northern Afghanistan and a project for the youth in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“The opportunities for women are indeed changing,” said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a joint meeting with the U.S. Congress last month. “I’m sure that many of you have seen those stunning Skateistan videos of others proudly taking their shiny eyed daughters to show off their new found skills in the ancient art of skateboarding. They are but the tip of the changes that are underway and which must be protected in advance.”
By teaching its students the importance and value of resilience, Skateistan has empowered them with the ability to dust themselves off every time they fall down in life much like they do when they fall off a skateboard. Girls can safely play their hearts out and children from diverse backgrounds can play together and form bonds that transcend differences in color or background.
“I met so many impressive women and girls in Afghanistan,” said U.K. photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson who visited Skateistan in Kabul and took a series of powerful photos that captured the joy of these young children on skateboards. “A teacher as tough and determined as any man; young Afghans in their early twenties who were volunteering at an orphanage and were passionate about being seen as strong and willing to fight for themselves, rather than as victims of circumstance; and girls who were being educated to be leaders in their communities and who were already thinking carefully about their own and their country’s future. And of course there were the young skate girls, so fun to be around and so totally unspoilt. I feel lucky to have met them. I hope that this collection captures something of their spirit: their joy in life, their individuality and their community.”
For more details about Skateistan, visit their official website.