Children skateboard to a better future

A second indoor skatepark has opened in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. There are 300 kids on the waiting list already – raring to skateboard down the new state-of-the-art ramps.

Hundreds of local children have come to admire their skatepark, with its shiny marble floor and brand new half-pipe ramps. They have a twinkle in their eye and it seems they can’t wait to get their feet onto one of the many skateboards.

The 6,000-square-meter, three-part, multifunctional facility – built largely with funding from the German Federal Foreign Office – can cater to around 1,000 students a week. Not only can they take part in skateboarding and other sporting activities provided by the NGO Skateistan but also in educational projects.

The main idea is for children from all backgrounds, aged between five and 17, to develop their self-confidence and skills. There is also a project for reintegrating street children into society via skating.

“We believe that focusing resources on the youth of Afghanistan is the key to realizing a more peaceful future,” writes Oliver Percovich, founder and Executive Director of Skateistan on the NGO’s website. “These children, especially the most marginalized and the girls, need to be given the chance and the tools to make positive change in their communities and country.”

‘Skateboarding is easy’

Percovich opened up the country’s first skatepark in the capital Kabul in 2009. He had started skating with Afghan children in 2007 and registered his NGO officially that year. It survives on international donations.

“I thought skateboarding is easy,” he tells Deutsche Welle. “I started to skateboard with children on the street and I was surprised that girls and boys tried it out, because I had not seen girls doing sports.”

Madina, who is 14 today, also learned how to skateboard in Kabul. Today, she is a trainer and has come to Mazar-i-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city, for the inauguration ceremony.

“I advise all the children in Mazar to do sport,” she says. “Not only skating but also basketball or football.”

Zaher Aghbar, the chairman of the Afghan National Olympic Committee (ANOC), is very proud of the facility. He is glad about the sporting activities but also that there are “language classes, IT classes and even religious studies. Children here also have access to the Internet which links them to others their age all over the world.”

What’s more, he says, it’s all free from the transport from the center four kilometers away, to the classes and the equipment.

‘Less likely to fall victim to drugs and the Taliban’

Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh province, has also endorsed the project, making available the site rent-free. He’s thinking of the future. “Sport is good for the children’s mental and physical health,” he points out. “They are less likely to fall victim to drugs, crime or the Taliban.”

In a country where war has raged for over 30 years, these children do not know what peace means, he explains. Almost 60 percent of the population is under 18.

This was one of Percovich’s main motivations. He has taught thousands of Afghan children to skateboard in recent years – some 40 percent were girls.

“As soon as girls were doing it and really wanted to do it and I found that it was okay for them to skateboard, I thought this is a bit of a loophole and I have to expand this idea,” he explains.

However, because some girls do not like doing sport in public or are not allowed to by their parents, they are sometimes taught in single-sex classes by female trainers only.

Around 80 percent of the children on the waiting list in Mazar-i-Sharif are girls. Skateboarding can give them a sense of freedom that is not otherwise to be felt in Afghan society.

Madina confirms this: “When I go down a ramp I feel free, it’s like flying.”

She was lucky that her family encouraged her to skateboard but this is not always the case. This is why Skateistan workers often pay calls on the children’s families and the local authorities to discuss their activities. They say that generally the project has gone down well.

However, it is not so clear what might happen after international troops withdraw from Afghanistan next year.

“It is uncertain what will happen – it will be a financial challenge,” says Percovich. “There might be less donor interest. We still don’t know where the money for next year is coming from, but we definitely plan to stay in Afghanistan in the long term.”

He wants Afghanistan’s youths to believe in their country, to help build it up and to stay there.

But the Australian’s ambitions are not limited to Afghanistan. Skateistan already supports a skatepark in Cambodia and there are plans to set up a similar project in Pakistan

This article was first published at:  DW.de

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