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Kabul’s wheels of change

23 January 2012 No Comment

An Australian is helping Afghans change their lives through the power of skateboarding, writes Jackie Dent.

HANIFA glides down the slanted ramp, her bright red-and-green traditional garb sparkling as she whizzes across the smooth floor. A little girl with bright-pink knee-pads follows her move, a determined look on her face. Nearby, Fazila has her hand extended, rolling another little girl backwards and forwards on a mini-ramp. The air in the expansive indoor skate park is cool and smells of fresh timber.

Two years ago, Hanifa, 14, and Fazila, 16, were eking out a living selling chewing gum in the streets of Kabul to support their families. Now, the pair are paid instructors at Skateistan, what is thought to be the world’s first co-educational skateboarding school – a spacious facility with two classrooms, a climbing wall, an array of ramps and walls plastered with colourful children’s drawings.

Each week, Skateistan says, up to 400 children turn up to study an arts-based curriculum and learn how to skateboard. Not only are these young women taking home about 9000 Afghani (about $180) a month but they also recently returned from a youth leadership meeting and skating demonstration in Italy. ”I want to be a skate star,” a grinning Hanifa says through an interpreter.

The profound transformation of these young women’s lives – and swathes of other children and teenagers – has largely come about through the energy and ambition of Oliver Percovich, a 37-year-old Melbourne man who moved to Kabul in 2007.

With just three skateboards, he and two friends turned a decrepit concrete fountain into a skateboard park but realised before long the kids needed to do more than ollies, 180s and kickflips.

Four years on, Percovich, who previously ran an organic bakery and worked as a researcher in emergency management, has seen his NGO move well beyond the confines of a Soviet-era fountain. A new facility catering for 1000 students is set to open in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif this year. A Skateistan facility has opened in Cambodia and they are looking to build a new skate park. A feature-length documentary about the path to building the Kabul school is touring the international film circuit. And last month, Percovich was in Cape Town, where Skateistan was a finalist at the Beyond Sport Awards, a new sport-for-social-change initiative set up by the former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Skating in Western culture has long been perceived as an outsider’s hobby and the decision by Percovich to use skateboarding as a tool to connect to the poor youths instantly set him apart from the mainstream, and donor, culture. But Percovich – one day dressed in a grey Skateistan hoodie, the next in an elegant, locally made coat with old Arabic coins as buttons – has learnt to play the aid game.

”It is interesting that we got our first money from Norway and skateboarding was actually banned in Norway in 1988,” he says.

”Skateistan is still the same thing – [no matter how] I talk about it to an ambassador or a parent of a student here, you’ve got to stress the things they want to hear. It’s simply packaging it in a certain way but keeping focused on what we want to do, rather than what a donor had money for or what a donor wanted to do.”

The school and skate park, not far from downtown Kabul, was ultimately funded by European governments and built on land donated by the Afghan National Olympic Committee.

While Percovich is diplomatic about the limited support he has received from AusAID and Australia in general, he jokes that a hokey 2010 exchange about Skateistan in a Senate committee would make for a good T-shirt. The exchange started with Liberal senator David Johnston calling the NGO ”Skat-hai-stan”. That this small NGO was raised in Senate highlights how difficult it can be for unique projects to get funded if oppositions subsequently use them as a means to embarrass governments. The inference from Johnston’s words was that there is something suspect about supporting youth and skateboards.

Under Afghan Ministry of Finance figures published in 2010, $US57 billion was spent on reconstruction and development between 2002 and 2010. But Percovich is determined to be as independent of donors as possible. He has struck up deals with various skateboarding companies in which part of the profits goes straight to Skateistan. Products developed under these deals include a red, black and green – the colours of the Afghan flag – skate sneaker made by Fallen, a Californian company, and pads and helmets by TSG, a German manufacturer.

Setting up a sport-based NGO, particularly one related to skateboarding and involving girls, also set Percovich at odds with Afghan culture. ”Afghans really love shows of strength,” he says.

”In terms of sports that are popular – bodybuilding is really popular, anything that is risky …

I also guess there just hasn’t been opportunities for doing sport when people have really been caught up in all the violence that has gone on for so long.

”First thing’s first, when you have to put bread on the table, recreation and sport are definitely seen as less important.”

When families have been opposed to girls coming to the school, Skateistan staff have been dispatched to hold talks – usually successfully – to nut out the problem. With up to 150 girls now coming each week to skate, the Kabul school is technically the largest female sporting federation in Afghanistan.

The constant threat of unpredictable violence, cuts to power and the internet and a difficult bureaucracy mean plans are afoot to move the headquarters of Skateistan to Europe. Percovich also wants to be able to pay international staff, who now work voluntarily and live together in a guesthouse across town.

Every day the school faces enormous challenges but Percovich is persistent.

”We are looking for outcomes and I don’t think we are going to have those outcomes without spending 10 years on the ground.”

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