(Video produced by Noah Abrams. To find out more, go to www.noahabrams.com)
When you hear Oliver Percovich talk about Skateistan, the skate school that he started for kids in Kabul, Afghanistan, you get the feeling that you're at the beginning of a movement not unlike skateboarding's birth. The amazement, vigor and happiness that skateboarding incites in the children around Kabul seems to parallel what the early history of skateboarding must have felt likethe late 40s, the 50s and 60s when kids turned the crate scooter into the first square boards. That time probably felt like uncharted territory.
The program in Afghanistan seems to share that same newness and freedom, even roughly sixty years later, at a time when skateboarding has progressed far beyond its initial stages into a wealth of its own cultures and subcultures. But, while the Afghan children use lent boards which came from that lineage, skateboarding in Afghanistan, especially within the confines of Oliver Percovich's Skateistan school, is largely open to the kids' interpretation.
The idea for Skateistan, itself, seemed to arise out of a set of unforeseen circumstances not too different from how skateboarding came about. What is now Skateistan was once just Oliver and friends of a local friend who borrowed his skateboard and rode it around Kabul. The group of Afghan males from the age of 17 to 22 would take his board out on the street, "and the other people were just street kids," Oliver explained, "who would come along and have a go. Then, they wouldn't want to give it back."
An Australian with a background in emergency management, Oliver went to Afghanistan in 2007 with few plans except to follow his then girlfriend Sharna Nolan, who worked there as a research officer and business consultant for rural development projects. He had a background in social science, which, he said, made him focus on "the social capital side of things, where links between people are some times just as important as money in solving problems." But, the initial idea for Skateistan was much more innocent. "When I first got to Kabul, I thought, it'd be really cool if we could build a miniramp somewhere," he admitted.
But, Oliver also saw the havoc that over thirty years of war had brought upon Afghanistan. From 1978 to present, different, but closely connected wars had ravaged the country. In 1978, at the height of the Cold War, the Saur Revolution brought the country under the Soviet-supported Communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). After the PDPA's rise to power, they were opposed by a fragmented resistance of US-supported Islamist mujahideen, which prompted the PDPA to request help from the Soviet Union to quell attacks. The arrival of the Soviet army in 1979 led to the Soviet-Afghan war, a conflict that some US officials at the time called the Soviet Union's Vietnam.
The conflict lasted until 1989, when the Soviet army pulled out, leaving the PDPA to fend for itself. Three years later, in 1992, the PDPA government fell to the Mujahideen forces, punctuated by the capture of Kabul. The government collapse opened the country to the once-united factions of Mujahideen, which turned on one another and led to a Civil war. A section of these factions formed the radical, largely Pashtun Taliban and gained power in Kabul, warding off attacks from the other largely non-Pashtun united factions now under the name the Northern Alliance. The Taliban had the upper hand and much of the control of Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan after the September 11th attacks and attacked the Taliban for harboring Al-Qaeda, pushing them out of Kabul.
When Oliver arrived, he found Afghan citizens scarred by these thirty years of war. Contracted foreigners sent there to develop roads, land-use plans and social programs lived behind security walls or were confined to bulletproof cars. "There's really no chance to even walk down the street," Oliver explained, "or find out, 'What are Afghans about?'"
Meanwhile, nearly two to three billion dollars a month were coming into the country from foreign nations attempting to develop Kabul and the loosely controlled areas of Afghanistan, conditioning many of the locals to little else but "sitting on the fence and putting their hand out on both sides." Oliver added, "After seven years, you'd expect to see some sort of progress. But, the streets of Kabul are definitely not skateable, for instance. Hospitals don't work. Schools are very, very dysfunctional."
This disconnect between the well-funded international development community and the jaded and sometimes opportunistic locals led Oliver to see the simple excitement the skateboard caused children on the street as vital to touching base with the relatively unscarred youth. "Most of the population is really, really young," he said. "70% is under 25. 16% is under 15 or 16. I just saw the way I was able to connect with young people very fast in the streets, through skateboardingboth boys and girlsand thought, perhaps it might be a great way to combine the pull and the fun of skateboarding with getting close to the population, finding out what they want and giving them the tools that they need to go forward."
The way skateboarding often brings different people together around the world, from punks to hip hop kids to bums; it mixed a 32-year-old Australian with upper-class kids and street kids in Kabul. Oliver started skating with the kids, sharing the decks he had and it grew from there.
From its early stages, funded by credit cards ("thank you VISA," Oliver joked) Skateistan has picked up support from the Norwegian, Danish and German embassies, the Canadian government, the president of the Afghan Olympic committee, Afghan ministries, the local Mullah and much of the international community in Kabul. "A lot of improvements are forced on people and this seemed to be something that was agreed upon by the Afghan community and the international community in Kabul," Oliver said. "Most of the parents that we come in contact with are very, very positive about it. They see it as an opportunity for their child, especially if they have a daughter," Oliver added.
Similarly, they have had support from Blackbox Distribution , distributor of Zero, Slave and Mystery skateboards and Fallen shoes, and TSG , makers of helmets and safety gear. The companies have provided boards, wheels, trucks, bearings, grip and safety equipment.
There is widespread support but there are also times when they have problems, Oliver admits. "Sometimes older siblings will try to stop their sisters from skateboarding. They don't actually say anything to us, but I've noticed that some of the girls are not skateboarding and certain family members are hanging around watching over them." Oliver said this could be the result of their oppressive views toward girls and women, but added, "that could be due to the fact that they also don't like them playing with other kids, like street kids. Some street kids sniff glue and use hash or heroin, so it's definitely a situation which is pretty sensitive."
"The street kids can get rough sometimes," he continued, "They're pushing the other kids around, but...I mean, quite often the rich kids are pushing around poorer kids...the older kids are pushing the younger kids off the skateboard, the boys are pushing the girls off the skateboard and the rich kids are pushing the poor kids off."
But, Oliver maintains that they provide a safe environment for the kids to skate and they work to turn the hierarchy on its head. "We try to reverse that [hierarchy] by bringing skateboards to the poor young girls. We're really biased in that sense."
Apart from using the skateboard as a tool to reverse these hierarchies, Oliver has grown Skateistan in the typical DIY way of skateboarding. The simple idea has expanded into plans for a comprehensive school which is being built, with an indoor skatepark designed by IOU Ramps. It's developed on various fronts. Rene Kock, for example, is producing a documentary about Oliver and the Skateistan project. Their public health advisor, Asheesh Bhalla, has incorporated vitamin distribution to the students. And, it's even drawn skaters from the international community to visit.
In June, Etnies rider Louisa Menke, from Holland, Maysam Faraj, from Dubai and pro skateboarders Kenny Reed and Cairo Foster from the US visited the children in Kabul and skated in the fountain where Oliver and the kids usually skate.
When I asked Cairo Foster about his trip, he said, "It wasn't like a skate trip, it was a life trip." Having lived in Egypt for three years, he said he didn't experience culture shock. But, he had never been to a war-torn country, like Afghanistan. It was a new perspective on skating. "It's definitely different than skating in the States. Nobody's worried about getting sponsored. They just want to have fun," Cairo explained. "When Kenny and I started skating with them, they were just like, 'Woah, this is what's possible on a skateboard?' Kenny was ollieing and kickflipping out of the fountain and the kids were amazed, because they were just pumping around the fountain. They were like, 'Wow, you guys can jump out?' It was completely innocent. There was this innocent aspect to skating that I hadn't seen in a while."
According to Oliver, he wants to keep that innocence to some degree and let the children determine how skating fits in the Afghan culture. "We're not really bringing any other skateboarding culture with us," Oliver said. "We don't show videos or necessarily wear different clothes. We're just bringing the skateboardsjust a board with four wheels. The kids can kneel on it or lie down on it and that's cool."
Oliver hopes to transfer this idea of exploration to all aspects of the school. He wants to give the children control of their education and hopes to renew Afghan pride in the younger generation by reintroducing Afghan games, giving incentive for studying and instilling the idea of responsibility in the young generation. "There need to be Afghan solutions to Afghan problems," he said, "even if the problems were caused by all these years of war. The international community can't do it for them. They can help, but they need the Afghans to work for it as well and the kids are much more genuine about committing to something."
When asked about the education he hopes to give, Oliver said, "The educational aspect will be largely guided by the kids." He hopes to incorporate the use of the Internet, find mentors abroad for children that want to pursue a certain profession and support development of microbusinesses.
But, Oliver stressed that this will be a very long-term project and it will need long-term support. "We've got a really significant amount of support from governments and individuals," he admitted. But, he continued, "We really want to set ourselves up. Individual donations really help us out. That keeps our running costs in place. Corporate sponsors are helping build the skatepark, major donors are helping with the infrastructure and individual donations keep the operation going...but, a lot of projects in Afghanistan fall apart as soon as the backers or the sponsors leave. We need to have something that's going to work over the next ten, twenty years."
Oliver said he is exploring other ways of raising money to keep the project going. He hopes to collaborate with skateboard companies on T-shirts or board series which would give proceeds to Skateistan. He also encourages people to help whatever way they can. So far, they have had an art auction in Copenhagen, a vert competition in Australia and other fundraising activities in London, Sweden and Norway, all of which benefited Skateistan. One woman even raised $1,000 by cutting hair.
Cairo Foster's trip compelled him to find some way to get involved as well. He plans to work as a consultant for Skateistan. Pondering other philanthropy projects in skateboarding, Cairo said, "Jamie [Thomas] does a good job with some of the shoes from Fallen. They donate money from those. Then, over at Deluxe , they have those Actions Realized boards that donate money to different charities. Those are different ways to help that I want to explore, particularly with Skateistan."
That's the kind of support Oliver hopes for. "We can do a lot of things with money," he admitted, "but if we can get lots and lots of kids and people around the world involved with smaller amounts of money and keep them involved in the project, that would be a much more sustainable solution. A donation of 100,000 dollars might not do it years from now."
For now, Oliver and everyone at Skateistan is striving to improve the project every day. And each day he skates with the kids, he's happy just to watch them have fun. "The nice thing for me is to see them exploring it and seeing it develop in its own way. It's kind of the way that skateboarding started 40 or 50 years ago in the US."
To learn more about getting involved with Skateistan, go to skateistan.org or the Skateistan facebook page. You can contact them regarding good ways to help fundraise or learn more about their International Volunteer Program.