Skateistan, which uses ‘the hook’ of skateboarding to connect children with education.
The six and a half hour time difference between Afghanistan and Australia means that I Skype Alix Buck – Communications Manager for Skateistan – in the middle of her work day while I’ve just finished dinner.
I’m staring at the blank Skype page because our dicey connection won’t support video - what can she see? She’s currently at her desk overlooking a mountain range in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city and she says the view is incredible.
Originally from Toronto, Canada and on her second four-month stint in Afghanistan, Alix is working at one of the two Skateistan campuses in Afghanistan – the other is in Kabul. At these campuses, and at Skateistan’s new satellite projects in Cambodia and South Africa, the NGO connects vulnerable children and teens to education and empowerment programs using what they describe as ‘the hook’ of skateboarding - enticing children to participate through play. Importantly, these projects place an emphasis on actively involving girls, a notable task in Afghanistan where violence against women has been described as endemic and their rights often overlooked for those of men. Globally the projects reach over 1200 students each week - over 50% of these are streetworking children and over 40% of these students are girls
Alix is open and friendly and says that she thinks that Afghanistan is quite different from what the international community might expect. What was I expecting? I had no idea - and this ignorance is in part the reason why I was keen to find out more about Skateistan, hoping to glimpse a snapshot of what life is like for the girls at the schools.
Where did the idea for Skateistan come from?
The school was founded in 2007 by an Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich who was in Afghanistan to visit his girlfriend. He brought his skateboard on his trip, and whenever he rode down the street he would be surrounded by lots of kids who were really excited about it, and wanted to know more about it and get involved. What he noticed was that it wasn’t just boys – girls were excited too.
Here [in Afghanistan], you don’t see girls playing traditional sports like football, or kite flying or doing anything like that. However, as skateboarding was so unknown in the country, there weren’t any cultural rules forbidding it and there wasn’t anybody who had said that girls shouldn’t skateboard. So many other sports had been culturally defined as ‘boys only’ but skateboarding was so new that Oliver was able to present it as something for both girls and boys.
So, when these girls started skating and were excited about it when they weren’t allowed to participate in other sports, this was kind of where the idea came from – Oliver thought that maybe skateboarding could be something that girls could really do, and really have fun while doing it. He thought it could be an opportunity for them to play, and learn and be active in a place where they didn’t really have many other opportunities to do that.
The world is a smaller place now with the internet. Has skateboarding’s cover been blown in Afghanistan yet - are social ideas about the board changing?
I don’t think that this has happened yet. I mean definitely in the past eight years there has been more internet access in Afghanistan, which you weren’t really seeing in 2007, so people have more access to that information. But still, you couldn’t buy a skateboard here, you don’t see them on the streets and very few people have computers that they can use. So yes, it’s not really ‘known’ here. That won’t last forever, but for now, it’s not known.
How safe is it for the girls to be skating at the school, and how are they supported by their families and the community?
You know how we were talking earlier about how things started, with Ollie, and how the kids would join him in the streets? The thing was, once some of the girls reached a certain age, their families weren’t so OK with them skateboarding in public – once they reached adolescence it was no considered appropriate for them to be skating in public. So that was what inspired him to build these secure facilities - Skateistan.
We have segregated sessions for girls and boys. On girls’ days we have only female staff, female teachers, female students - there are no boys allowed. And so, that helps us to keep girls involved, especially as they get older.
Generally, I think families are quite supportive about what is happening here. We also have a student support officer whose full time job is to register students and also follow up with their families.
Even though these classes are separate for boys and girls, do you think that that the boys' awareness of what the girls are doing, by being involved in Skateistan changes their perception of them?
Yes I think it does. Boys here are used to having priority over girls - all the time - and Skateistan really turns that around on them and I think that they do really learn a lot from it. While the classes are separate, we have events where the girls will do a demo for all of their families and the other students and the leaders will do a big skateboarding demonstration. So that’s an opportunity where their parents and families actually get to see them skating and boys get to see them being impressive and seeing that they are capable of doing this. That’s a pretty awesome sight – seeing an Afghan girl skate and this crowd just going wild like a celebrity has arrived! The girls get an opportunity to show their skills in an appropriate context, and I think that this is the time when – not just the boys – but their parents – see that they are capable of doing something quite special.
It’s great. What’s an average day like for students at Skateistan?
Our flagship program is ‘Skate and Create’ and students attend every week for two hours, and they do one hour of skateboarding and one hour in the classroom doing a creative arts education around a rotating curriculum. Another key project is our ‘Back to School Program’ which is for kids who aren’t in school and usually working in the streets. In Afghanistan if you’ve had time out of school you have to do an entrance exam to get back in, so they come in every day and we prepare them for that – and the success rate of this program is 93%. Our student support officer goes and sees if they are still attending in one to two years and as the program matures a little bit, we will be able to get the numbers as to how long the children then stay in school and go on to graduate – so that’s exciting.
Our third program is a youth leadership program, and that’s exactly what it sounds like. We look out for really promising students that are passionate about skateboarding and learning, and assist them in becoming youth leaders. They have special skate workshops set aside for them and also they become volunteer teachers with the students.
What about you, can you tell me more about your role and how you got involved in Skateistan?
I’ve been working with Skateistan for about two and a half years in between our projects in Cambodia, Afghanistan and our headquarters in Berlin. Right now I’m talking to you from Mazar-e- Sherif in Northern Afghanistan.
My work is split between international media, managing our website and coordinating with external media. It’s really important to Skateistan to be managed by local Afghan people, so I also do a lot of training of the staff – teaching them how to run the communications department for when I’m not here – that’s a big part of it. At the school in Kabul there are no international staff – it is run completely by Afghan staff.
I have always been a skateboarder, and international development has always been a big interest of mine – so I guess it kind of made sense for me to apply to do this. I applied for a volunteer placement and I went to Cambodia on a six month volunteer placement and basically never left (laughs) – at the end of my placement I started moving around different project sites.
What is it like working in Afghanistan?
I think it’s pretty different from what people would expect. I mean, I’ve been here for a while now, but yeah, obviously it’s very different, from Canada, where I grew up – or other countries in the Western world. The security issues are obviously not so fun. But where I am right now, in Mazar, is quite safe. It’s quite nice up here actually. It’s a beautiful country, the hospitality is absolutely mind-blowing and the people are quite incredible.