Skateboarding Empowers Young Girls In Afghanistan

By Michael J. Sainato

Australian native Oliver Percovich began skateboarding on his sixth birthday, while growing up in Papua New Guinea. Soon, his skateboard became an extension of him, going everywhere he went. Even after studying chemistry and working as a researcher, he always thought of himself, first and foremost, as a skateboarder.

When his girlfriend at the time took a job as an aide worker in Kabul in 2007, Percovich accompanied her, skateboard in tow. Once he became acquainted with his new surroundings, he took to the streets of Kabul with his skateboard. Virtually unheard of in Afghanistan at the time, the skateboard became a quick icebreaker and fascinated local kids.

Those initial interactions served as the impetus for Skateistan, now an international nonprofit organization with projects currently in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa. The organization’s current annual budget is at $1.2 million, up from virtually zero a mere seven years ago. Growth, overhead, and development is entirely dependent on donations and volunteers.

Skateboarding quickly became an opportunity to involve local girls in physical activity, as social norms forbid them from participating in sports. “Boys were out playing cricket, playing soccer, flying kites, but girls were simply not doing activities like that,” says Percovich, who currently serves as Skateistan’s director. “I realized it was a loophole. Since skateboarding was brand new to Afghanistan, nobody had seen it before, so girls [weren’t banned] from doing it.” Of the 1,200 students taught skateboarding at project sites weekly, 40% of those are girls between the ages of 5 and 18.

Percovich soon realized that skateboarding could provide children in Kabul with the same sense of belonging and horizon-broadening that he experienced when he was growing up. As skateboarding began to take hold in his small circle of Afghan friends, he began to bring more skateboards to the region, and eventually raised enough funding to open an all-inclusive skate park and educational facility in October 2009. Percovich didn’t want to merely introduce skateboarding to kids, but also use it as a hook to get kids back into the education system, as many were living on the street and out of school.

The first two years of the organization were a financial struggle. The organization also grappled with making house calls to keep the girls involved in skateboarding, and with coordinating transportation for them to and from the school/skate park. Most critically, students and staff continue to worry about the relative dangers of living in Kabul; violence between the Afghan government and Taliban forces persist in the region, and has been exacerbated by the recent emergence of ISIS in the country. Says Percovich:

“We’ve had students and staff die in suicide attacks, not ones directed at Skateistan; they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time in Kabul. There are suicide attacks several times a month in Kabul. We also had a roof collapse from too much snow one winter a few years ago . . . These challenges have only made us more determined and better at what we’re doing, motivating us to keep on going, to keep the girls involved, and to find good ways of getting around the obstacles to our mission.”

Waning interest from foreign governments around the world to provide aid to countries like Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa has also impeded the progress made by Skateistan and other nonprofits. This is particularly troubling, Percovich says, considering how important the children of Afghanistan are to its future. According to statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation, as of 2014, 46% of Afghanistan’s population was under the age of 15. “We have students who are 10 years old; they are the future of the country,” Percovich says. “The country will see a lot of changes in the next few years, but if these children aren’t given access to higher education, they won’t have the capability to make the improvements needed in the country.”

He also says he would like to see the first female president of Afghanistan in the near future. “I don’t think it’s going to happen in the next five years, but in the next 15 years, it’s definitely possible.”

All images courtesy of Skateistan.

Find ways to donate and get involved with Skateistan here.

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