Skateistan: German Organization Takes Skateboarding to Afghanistan
Enlarge image Skateistan in Kabul (© picture-alliance/ dpa) Upon first impressions, 14-year old Madina Saidy is not the usual girl on a skateboard. She lives in dusty, war-ravaged Kabul, Afghanistan, and, like all the other girls her age, wears traditional modest dress of loose pants and a top down to her knees.
Two years ago she began attending skating lessons with Skateistan, and she now works there, teaching younger children to skate.
Now, she has the same dreams as any other skater: she wants to go pro.
“My favorite trick is an Ollie,” says Saidy referring to a jump technique which allows the skater to pretend that the board is stuck to the shoes.
“Forgetting about war is difficult but I feel good when I am skating. When I'm skating I feel like I'm flying and that I am free,” she says in an interview via Skype.
Saidy is one of almost 2,000 children who have learned to skate through Skateistan. The organization, which has its headquarters in Berlin, and which teaches skateboarding to children from the ages of five to 17, began in 2007, when Australian skater Oliver Percovich followed his girlfriend to Kabul. He took a few boards along so that he could find friends to skate with.
As soon as he took his boards to the street, young people, most of whom had never seen a skateboard before, crowded around and wanted to get involved, and the idea arose to have regular skate sessions in an empty fountain in the city.
From here an indoor skate park, climbing wall, basketball court and badminton court, and education facility were built in 2009, and the school now sees 400 children coming through its doors each week, from different social and economic backgrounds. The organization has expanded to teaching skateboarding to children in Cambodia and Pakistan.
Skateistan goes beyond sport, and employs local Afghans, both former students of the school and qualified teachers, to teach art, media and environmental arts. There are currently 30 staff members in Kabul, including foreign volunteers.
In a small office in a quiet street of Berlin district Kreuzberg, Frauke Meyn, programs director for Skateistan and a skater herself, explains why they do what they do. “We try to give the kids a chance for critical thinking, and to give them a voice,” says Meyn.
“We want to get them to develop their own opinions. Mostly, the lessons they get in public schools are not very interactive, where teachers are using frontal teaching styles.”
Skateistan encourages Afghans to teach each other, she says.
“We don’t want to have to keep bringing in outsiders, we just want to nudge the locals to get the process started.”
When the students turn 17, they are given the chance to stay involved in the school, by teaching, either skateboarding or in the classrooms.
Meyn explains how skateboarding goes beyond just an activity in these children’s lives.
“Skating has an end goal. You have to try very hard to do a kickflip, for example. It’s a lot about having aims and fighting for them. It teaches you how to accomplish something and helps you realize that if you want something to change, it’s up to you to change it.”
To add to the usual difficulties of childhood and teenage years are the issues of growing up in a war zone.
Since 2001, the armed forces of the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom have been present in Afghanistan, attempting to dismantle Al-Qaeda and fighting Taliban insurgents. While no figure is available for all ten years, humanitarian organizations estimate that thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed by both Afghan and foreign troops, and an even higher number has died due to displacement, disease and starvation, in the humanitarian crisis exacerbated by the war.
“You see the war affecting children’s lives,” says Meyn. “They cannot plan things in advance, as their homes can be destroyed at any minute. It's hard for anyone to plan ahead in Afghanistan, including our students. It’s hard for them to invest in the future because they don’t know what tomorrow is going to be like. A few months ago, a few Skateistan students were injured in a suicide bombing. That’s when you realize that this war is real.”
Another issue, says Meyn is the difficulty in involving girls in the school. Girls currently make up 40 percent of the students.
“Many girls come from conservative families with strict cultural requirements,” says Meyn.
“You sometimes hear that a girl can’t come anymore because she’s gotten married. But it is not our intention to judge about this. We just give the kids the options to have an opinion.”
(To find out more, visit www.skateistan.org )