Skating to a better future: Skateistan, an unorthodox route to the empowerment of underprivileged youth

Security, health and education are entitlements often taken for granted by those of us in developed countries. Living an accessible, healthy and cultivated life is commonplace, and if there is something missing, many voids are filled without difficulty.

But it is a different story for the inhabitants of countries such as Afghanistan. Once described in a UNICEF report as the “worst” place in the world to be born, Afghanistan’s statistics do little to restore confidence, portraying a country of extreme deprivation blighted by conflict, with almost half of its population living below the poverty line.

Child mortality is high, with a rate of 98.5% for those under the age of five. Only 60% of children who reach schooling age are able to attend, resulting in a mere 28% of Afghanistan’s adult population living with sufficient education.

skatistan youth empowerment

It is estimated that around 20% of Afghanistan’s youths are expected to work in order to provide for their families, with around 70,000 children working on the streets of the country’s capital, Kabul. As a result of these responsibilities, the health, education and quality of life for these children suffer. While the country’s education is steadily improving with more educational institutions and educators available, in many regions, numbers are still very low.

However, things are changing for the better, thanks to an organisation with a view to transform the lives of vulnerable children and their communities, and it all begins with skateboards. If you think skateboarding is just a regular hobby, think again.

Born on the streets of Kabul in 2007, Skateistan was founded by Oliver Percovich, an Australian skateboarder who, following his arrival in Kabul with three boards, observed a distinct lack of opportunities for the city’s young locals – notably girls – and began teaching them to skateboard.

“When I arrived in Afghanistan, I was just having fun, letting the street-working kids play around on my skateboard,” Percovich says. But then it became much more than that – “I had the idea of using the skateboard as a tool for education – for opportunities.”

Skateistan began its life as a modest “Sport for Development” initiative, a far cry from its now-international reach as an unconventional award-winning non-profit organisation, educating over 1200 children internationally with projects in Kabul, Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan, and a developing project in Johannesburg, South Africa.

skatistan youth empowerment

With a strong belief that children deserve the right to enjoy their childhood no matter what their situation, Skateistan welcomes youths from all backgrounds, striving to encourage equality, respect and a sense of community between youths of different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.

Alongside their own merchandise sales and bi-annual self-fundraising, Skateistan rely on core support from embassies, fundraisers and donations to aid the provision of a range of free skateboard-based creative learning programmes to those aged five to 18, and further support of youths up to the age of 25. Over 60% of the organisation’s students are from low-income backgrounds, and over 50% work on the street to support themselves and their families.

Through these programmes, Skateistan aims to engage youths in the communities they visit, providing the opportunity for exercise and enjoyment, enhancing knowledge, social and life skills, and broadening their horizons for future opportunities in work and education.

With a female student population of over 40%, Skateistan’s methods and female focus are contentious in a place such as Afghanistan, where criticism of educational and sporting facilities for girls is strong, and many regions prevent girls from progressing beyond primary education. However, the organisation sees skateboarding, the country’s largest sport for women and girls, as the catalyst for both sporting and educational development and equality in Afghanistan.

Through Skateistan, youths are able to experience weekly skateboarding lessons alongside structured arts-based classes, prepare for education through advanced learning if they have not been able to attend school, and access street outreach services if they are in need.

skatistan youth empowerment

Other programs run by the organisation also create work opportunities for older members of the communities they visit, and enable youths to take part in educational workshops, where they can improve their leadership skills by developing peer and community projects of their own, with a view to bringing long-term, lasting change. Skateistan is an organisation showing no signs of slowing down – Percovich describes the Johannesburg project as the main focus of the near future, adding that he would “love” to see an increase in Skateistan schools across the world.

It is hoped that with increased recognition will come further support, enabling them access to a wider scope of communities ready to experience what they and other organisations have to offer. These organisations can realise their desire for change, bringing them closer to the rights and enriched lives that they deserve. And one day, perhaps, the lives of those in Afghanistan – and other developing countries – won’t be so different from ours.

 

‘Skateistan: To Live And Skate Kabul’ is a short film by Orlando von Einsiedel, following the lives of a group of young skateboarders in Afghanistan.

 

Words by Shelby Stapleton

Photos by Skateistan