Oliver Percovich – Transforming Afghan girls’ lives with a skateboard

In Oliver’s words …

Who/what inspires me: The dozens of Skateistan youth whose lives I’ve seen change for the better because of their personal strength and perseverance.

Best advice or motto: Utilize your passion. If you are passionate about something, you will go the extra mile.

The 14-year-old grabs a skateboard, jumps aboard, leaps off the skate ramp’s steep edges and seemingly floats through the air before landing the board and shooting back up the other side. It’s a talented performance. Yet that’s not what makes it so compelling. For the skater is a girl. Her family is poor. And she lives in Afghanistan.

Hanifa has transformed from a waif selling tea on the streets of war-ravaged Kabul to a skateboard instructor who is training to re-enter the school system thanks to a grassroots initiative that now employs 70 people and educates 1500 students a week across four sites in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa.

Skateistan is transforming young lives by luring youth with skateboards and offering skating lessons alongside formal education. In the process the charity is overcoming class distinctions, transcending social barriers, and boosting confidence. It is injecting new light into the eyes of children once dulled and wearied by war.

Skateistan … is injecting new light into the eyes of children once dulled and wearied by war.

Skateboarding brings smiles to children wearied by war.
Skateboarding brings smiles to Afghan children.

An idea is born

Australian Oliver Percovich, or Ollie, was five years old and living in Melbourne when a cousin gave him his first skateboard. “I loved it from the moment I fell off it,” Ollie says. The passion endured as Ollie grew up, and his skateboard came with him on extensive travels around the globe.

So it was that Ollie brought his skateboard with him when he joined his then girlfriend looking for work in Afghanistan. Though he had studied environmental chemistry and worked as a social scientist in emergency management, Ollie didn’t find the work as a researcher that he’d hoped for. He found himself on the streets, skateboarding to kill time. The Afghan street children flocked to him and his strange contraption. What was this chunk of wood with wheels, they asked? How did it connect to his feet?

“I found the skateboard was a great way to break the ice,” Ollie says. “There was a huge cultural gap and I had no language skills so skateboarding was a great way of connecting with the street-working kids that were hassling me for money. I gave them my skateboard and noticed girls as well as boys becoming interested. I hadn’t noticed girls doing any other sports so it really piqued my interest that it could become something more.”

“I found the skateboard was a great way to break the ice.”

Connection through skating

Intrigued by the possibilities, Ollie convinced a friend in the skateboard industry to donate more boards and started holding impromptu skating lessons in public places in Kabul. “I had no money, everyone thought I was totally crazy but for me it made a lot of sense,” he recalls.

Many of the lessons took place in a dish-shaped concrete fountain built by the Russians during their invasion of the country. At first the boys were his sole students, while the girls stood far back, smiling shy smiles and giggling behind their hands. Within two weeks the girls were standing on the edge of the fountain watching, intrigued. A few weeks later and they were on skateboards.

While Afghan girls aren’t allowed to ride bikes, skateboarding was such a new entity it hadn’t had the chance to be outlawed. The girls relished the opportunity to escape the sidelines.

After one girls-only session in the fountain, Ollie watched gobsmacked as the girls – some middle class, some desperately poor – joined hands and started singing and dancing as one. He caught a glimpse of the trust, the sense of community, that a shared love of skateboarding could forge.

He caught a glimpse of the trust, the sense of community, that a shared love of skateboarding could forge.

Oliver introduces the magic of skating to a group of Afghan girls at a public fountain in Kabul.
Ollie introduces the magic of skating to a group of Afghan girls at a public fountain in Kabul.

Skateboarding-education link forged

Ollie got to know the kids he was teaching and realised many worked the streets to help support their families and were therefore unable to attend school. Among these kids was Fazilla, whose parents had taken her out of school to beg fulltime on Afghanistan’s grey streets. Ollie approached her parents with a deal. Could Fazilla go back to school if Ollie paid her $1 a day? Her parents agreed. And the link between skating and education was formed.

But Ollie was so broke he was sleeping on friends’ couches, so hard up for money that he’d attend market at closing time to bargain for rotten fruit to eat. He knew the $1 a day arrangement couldn’t last for Fazilla, let alone all the other kids he dreamed of helping.

He … realised many [kids] worked the streets to help support their families.

Afghan girls Wahila and Fazilla were able to leave the streets and return to education thanks to Skateistan.
Afghan girls Wahila and Fazilla were able to leave the streets and return to education thanks to Skateistan.

Dreaming big

Impressed by what he witnessed during Ollie’s skating sessions, a friend of Ollie’s arranged a meeting between Ollie and the incoming president of the Afghan Olympic committee. Ollie convinced the president to donate some land and then embarked a mass two-year fundraising effort that resulted in the construction of Afghanistan’s biggest indoor sports facility – site of Skateistan’s first premises.

Skateistan would offer skateboard instruction on the condition its students embarked on one of three programs – Skate and Create, in which students receive weekly skateboarding instruction alongside an educational arts-based curriculum; Back-to-School, an accelerated learning program that prepares out-of-school youth to enrol or re-enrol in the public school system; and Youth Leadership, in which participants help with skate sessions and classroom lessons, help to plan and manage events, and take part in special sports, arts, and multimedia workshops.

Unlike traditional Afghan schooling which largely operates on rote learning, Skateistan concentrated on teaching critical thinking skills, enhancing creativity and encouraging self-expression. Skateistan also paid some of its students to become instructors, freeing them of the need to peddle wares on Kabul’s streets and enabling them to access school.

Several students who’ve completed Skateistan’s Youth Leadership program have gone on to represent Afghanistan at UNICEF events in Germany. One young girl attended the World Urban Forum in Columbia along with 20,000 other delegates as Afghanistan’s only female representative.

Another boy, Noorzai, whom Ollie met as a street kid clad in filthy clothes, escalated through the ranks of Skateistan to become sports coordinator of Skateistan’s north Afghanistan operation. He is now enrolled in law school.

Enticed with skateboards, Afghan girls are groomed to re enter the school system with education programs.
Enticed with skateboards, Afghan girls are groomed to re-enter the school system with Skateistan’s education programs.

Transcending social barriers

For Ollie the biggest satisfaction comes from witnessing new relationships form and students’ confidence soar. “Over a period of weeks they gain a lot of confidence as they do something they never thought they’d do,” he says. “And the relationships they form are vitally important.”

Ollie gains particular satisfaction in seeing poverty-stricken kids interact with their middle-class peers – something that otherwise rarely occurs. He watches the street kids, who are often bigger risk-takers and therefore better skaters, helping their middleclass peers with skating and then, in return, the middleclass kids helping their lesser-schooled friends in the classroom.

“You see these street-working girls and these middleclass girls skating together and overcoming these huge barriers in society and making vital friendships,” Ollie says. “I really see that [relationship building] as the basis of what needs to happen in Afghanistan society. The first thing that needs to be built is trust, and that’s built through social connection. When trust is in place then other things are possible.”

“When trust is in place then other things are possible.”

Young girls like this one experience soaring confidence thanks to mastering the art of skateboarding.
Young girls like this one experience soaring confidence thanks to mastering the art of skateboarding.

Growth

Inspired by the success of Skateistan in Kabul, a Frenchman living in Cambodia’s Phnom Penh approached Ollie about starting a similar program there. Skateistan offered a small grant and helped launch Skateistan Cambodia. While the issues Cambodian children face differ vastly from those in Afghanistan, the lure of skateboarding remains strong.

“We really tailor the program to suit the country so that they’re locally relevant,” Ollie says. “But the thing that remains constant is that skateboarding is a lot of fun and a great way for people to meet each other and interact. Lots of things can grow from there.”

Buoyed by the success of the Cambodian operation, Skateistan is now opening a facility in Johannesburg in South Africa.

“Lots of things can grow from there.”

Challenge

Of course such success doesn’t come easily. Skateistan has faced grumblings from Afghanistan’s more traditional sector for having the gall to educate girls, for introducing a western sport to its youth. As girls age many are forbidden from attending. And yet Skateistan has never received threats to close.

Skateistan staff also face the difficulties of living in a society still gripped by the cruelties of war. In 2012 several Skateistan students and staff were killed in a suicide attack at an international military base while they attempted to sell trinkets to the soldiers – a loss that reverberated through the Skateistan community.

There’s also the human resources problems of working across a deep cultural divide, and the time spent living internationally away from family and friends. And yet Ollie feels honoured to do what he does.

“I really believe all humans are equal and there should be equal opportunity for people all around the world,” he says. “To be able to work towards that in my own little way is very rewarding. And seeing the children blossom is the best reward.”

“… seeing the children blossom is the best reward.”

Flying free

Watching Hanifa on her skateboard, light dancing across sparkling eyes, it’s easy to understand the reward Ollie speaks of. Speaking about her involvement in Skateistan Hanifa mentions her love of skating high on the ramps: “I like going high on the ramps,” she says. “When I’m up there I feel free, like I’m flying.”

“When I’m up there I feel free, like I’m flying.”

Get involved

Skateistan relies on sponsorship, donations and merchandise sales to operate. You can help Skateistan to continue its work by visiting its website at www.skateistan.org and pledging money or buying merchandise such as T-shirts and a book or documentary about Skateistan.

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