Oliver Percovich is a young Australian and the founder of Skateistan, an international organisation that provides education and skateboarding instruction to youth in some of the most volatile places in the world. When we Skype he’s in Berlin and appears exhausted and agitated, halfway through our conversation his cause for concern surfaces. Over the past six weeks there have been six suicide attacks near their home skate park in Kabul, Afghanistan. The park is home to 400 students, and this week was the first time Skateistan staff had ever shut down operations due to safety concerns.
Percovich’s worries are justified. Twelve months ago a 16-year-old suicide bomber detonated at the skate park boundary killing three students and one instructor. They were all under 17-years-old, the youngest victim being only eight.
The tragedy, which drew worldwide media attention, rattled the Skateistan community. Despite the trauma, students returned to the facility soon after and Skateistan is now stronger. The program continues to operate in Kabul; and has expanded to include skateboard aid projects, skate parks for Cambodian youth, a grassroots street-level program in Pakistan, and the newly opened state-of-the-art learning and skateboarding center in Mazar-e-Sharif, Northern Afghanistan. Through everything Skateistan retained its thousands of students, and their commitment is unwavering.
Percovich started Skateistan during a trip to Kabul in 2007. He had trouble finding employment in research, and spent his days skateboarding Kabul’s streets. He immediately attracted the attention of local kids, “I had quickly convinced myself of the idea that boys and girls of differing ethnicities could be interested in skating together”.
Although he recognised the possibility for an NGO, the more time he spent on the street with local people, the more he became disillusioned with the practice of NGOs working in Kabul:
“Being on the street really showed me that international development wasn’t looked upon highly. There was no ownership over the changes happening for the people, no sense of self-determination. Trust was the thing that everyone needed, there was not going to be a solution to the problems unless there was trust, not in health, education, anything. I wanted to do what made sense to me, I didn’t like the things that were happening in order for proposals to secure funding, all of a sudden an NGO would change in order to be relevant to the funding status quo.”
Percovich decided to focus on the project and within a year and a half the first facility was being built, Percovich has no plans to slow down.
I asked Percovich if it has ever been frightening, trying to build something stable in the middle of urban Afghanistan? “It’s been frightening with the constant threat of the Taliban, but it’s equally as frightening crossing paths with 18 and 19-year-old foreign soldiers, hyped up on energy drinks with paranoia in their heads and guns in their hands”.
It’s not an overstatement to call Skateistan a safe havens for children in Afghanistan, especially at a time where the UN has recently reported a 30 percent increase in civilian deaths among children from a year ago, and a marked increase in recruitment and use of children in the armed forces. Children are employed for policing activities, assembling and planting IEDs, and carrying out suicide attacks—as was the case in the suicide attack at Skateistan in 2012.
The country has the highest number of school-aged children per capita in the world, and one of the lowest school attendance rates. Issues concerning education aren’t as superficial as the 3 R’s, they’re wide reaching: it’s widely reported that an educated person (especially females) have on average better health and an understanding of her and her families rights.
When Skateistan decided to hire qualified teachers, create safe classrooms, and implement longer school hours for boys and girls, the effect was generously received. With a 50 percent enrolment of street working kids, and an overall 40 percent enrolment of girls, Skateistan has quickly become an unlikely asylum for young people—especially for females.
Percovich explains the method, “With skateboarding we really had a loophole—most sports are seen as an activity for boys, not girls; but because nobody was skateboarding at all in Afghanistan we had an advantage in that we could make this sport for girls from the very beginning”.
So what does the future look like for Skateistan? “We want to keep the same attitude and stay committed; whenever I had a setback before, whenever funding was promised and then retracted, whenever there was a spanner in the works, I just said: 'Okay, we’ll try something else'. That’s it for us, if it’s a good idea, I know we can wait out the setbacks and get there eventually.”
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