It all started with one man and his three skateboards on the streets of Kabul in 2007. His idea became Skateistan, the first international development initiative to combine skateboarding with educational outcomes. Although it started in Afghanistan, Skateistan now runs in Cambodia and South Africa too, reaching thousands of children and youth. What started with a board and four wheels is now an award-winning, international NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) with the mission of empowering children and youth through skateboarding and education. Almost 10 years on, Skateistan is creating leaders that make a better world. This is how it all began and how it came to be.
This is the Skateistan story so far...
Scroll down to learn how it all began
In February, Australian skateboarder and researcher Oliver Percovich arrived in Afghanistan, carrying with him three skateboards and an open spirit.
He spent his first few months in Kabul talking to Afghans and foreigners about the attempts to rebuild the country after decades of war. With almost 70% of the population under the age of 25, he wondered why there were so few investments in Afghan youth at that time.
While he worked in the day, Oliver lent his skateboards to some Afghan teenagers, who got hooked on the feeling of the freedom it provided them. They became the country's first skateboarders.
"I THOUGHT MAYBE I COULD MAKE SOME SKATEBOARD BUDDIES BY HAVING SOME MORE SKATEBOARDS WITH ME."
- Oliver Percovich, Founder and Executive Director
As Oliver and his new friends skated around the streets in Kabul, they saw the pull that the skateboard had with youth of all socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities and genders. Skateboarding quickly created a community that overcame social divisions.
The idea was sparked! Oliver started looking for equipment sponsors in Australia, Europe and the US so that he could bring more skateboards to Afghanistan.
"IT HAD TO BE DRIVEN BY WHAT NEEDS WERE PERCEIVED BY AFGHANS. THAT'S WHERE MY IDEA, THE IDEA OF SKATEISTAN CAME FROM – IT NEEDED TO ACTUALLY BE DRIVEN BY THE KIDS SINCE IT STARTED WITH KIDS SAYING 'WE NEED MORE SKATEBOARDS!'"
- Oliver Percovich
The following year, Oliver dedicated himself full-time to the idea of establishing a non-profit organization that used skateboarding to give Afghan youth a positive outlet and community. Although not yet officially registered, children and youth started to know the project as "Skateistan".
"THE WHOLE IDEA THAT WE WERE BUILDING SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS IN AFGHANISTAN AND IT DOESN'T MATTER IF THEY'RE POOR OR RICH OR COMING FROM DIFFERENT ETHNICITIES."
- Oliver Percovich
Skateistan began running regular skate sessions at various locations in Kabul, including an orphanage and an abandoned, Soviet-style fountain in a neighborhood called Mekroyan.
The daily skate lessons in the empty circular fountain attracted dozens of local youth, including many street-working children selling trinkets or washing cars nearby.
For the first time, girls started coming to skate regularly. Although most Afghan girls weren't allowed to play sports due to social norms, the skateboard was seen more as a toy and provided a loophole for them to join in the fun.
"PEOPLE WHO SAY SOMETHING AGAINST GIRL SKATERS DON'T KNOW THAT GIRLS AND BOYS HAVE THE EQUAL RIGHT TO SKATE."
- Mahdia*, Outreach student, Kabul
Volunteers, both national and international, played an essential part in keeping the activities running as they taught skate lessons, took photos to share with media and wrote sponsorship proposals.
"THE FIRST TIME THAT WE SAW SKATEBOARDING WE SAID TO EACH OTHER 'THE WHEELS HAVE COME!"
- Mosawer*, Outreach student, Kabul
The streets of Kabul were a dangerous place, so the small Skateistan team began to dream of a safe, indoor facility for Afghan youth to skate in.
Skateistan continued to run classes outside and was working with 120 students weekly in neighborhoods and orphanages across Kabul.
Meanwhile, Oliver was spending his days asking Afghan officials to donate land to build a skatepark on, or at foreign embassies asking for construction funding.
Skateistan started to pay two of the best local skaters, who were also street-working youth, to be part-time skate instructors – with their parents agreeing to let them work with Skateistan as well as attend school. This was the point where it became clear that skateboarding could be used to connect kids with education and leadership opportunities.
"I CAN'T IMAGINE MY LIFE WITHOUT SKATING, SO I'LL KEEP DOING IT FOR AS LONG AS I CAN, IN WHATEVER PLACE THAT I CAN..."
- Akram*, Outreach student, Kabul
The crazy idea of Skateistan began to capture the interest of people around the world. In the summer, a team of documentary filmmakers visited Kabul, bringing along the first pro skateboarders to ever step foot in Afghanistan.
Later in 2009, Skateistan was presented with the 'NGO of the Year' award at the Peace and Sport Forum in Monaco, recognising the impact of their work already.
The dream of an indoor facility became a reality. On October 29, Skateistan's first Skate School opened its doors in Kabul. It was Afghanistan's first skatepark and largest indoor sports facility, but it also featured classrooms and an office. The Skate School was built on land donated by the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee.
The ramps were built by German skatepark builder Andreas Schützenberger and some of Skateistan's original students.
In November, Skateistan was finally able to provide not only skateboarding, but also education. Each registered student started spending an equal amount of time learning in the classroom as on a skateboard, with some children sitting in a classroom for the first time in their lives!
"I HOPE THAT SKATEBOARDING IS ALSO SYNONYMOUS WITH EDUCATION IN AFGHANISTAN"
- Oliver Percovich
The Skate and Create program was born! Skateistan's flagship program offered weekly skateboarding instruction alongside an educational arts-based curriculum where students learned about topics such as human rights, cultural studies, nutrition and the environment.
With the opening of the Kabul Skate School, Skateistan expanded its reach to 330 Afghan youth (aged 5-17) weekly. Nearly 40% of the students were girls, who attended for girls-only classes taught by female Educators.
"AT SKATEISTAN I DON'T FEEL THAT MY SURROUNDINGS ARE RUINED, I FEEL AS THOUGH I'M IN A NICE PLACE."
- Elaha*, Skate and Create and Youth Leader, Kabul
Skateistan students were a mix of different ethnicities, poor and rich, educated and uneducated, with lessons aimed at building friendships.
Alongside a dedicated team including Oliver, Deputy Director Max Henninger, and 15 Afghan staff, Skateistan continued to rely on young volunteers to run the programs.
"THE REALLY SMALL THINGS WE ARE DOING, ARE ACTUALLY SOMETHING REALLY BIG."
- Country Manager, Kabul (2009-2012)
Experienced international volunteers from Germany, USA, Canada and France travelled to Kabul for six-month placements to provide training and support as Educators, accountants, photographers and communications coordinators. Over a dozen Skateistan students became volunteer teachers, IT administrators and translators.
Skateistan's Back-to-School program was launched to help students enroll or re-enroll in the public school system in Afghanistan. The education system had been decimated during the Taliban years – so only 13% of women knew how to read and write. More than half of Skateistan's students were working in the streets or living in temporary camps after fleeing conflict in their home provinces, with many of them not attending school.
"THE LACK OF OPPORTUNITIES IN SPORT AND EDUCATION FOR FEMALES IS NOT JUST AN ISSUE AFFECTING AFGHANISTAN, BUT MANY OTHER COUNTRIES AROUND THE WORLD."
- Oliver Percovich
The first 29 street-working children (15 girls, 14 boys) registered to attend the forward-thinking program which offered one year of accelerated learning before graduating the program and enrolling in public school.
"WHEN I GOT TO MY SCHOOL CLASS NO ONE WAS MORE INTELLIGENT THAN ME. THE OTHER STUDENTS EVEN CHOSE ME TO BE THE LEADER OF THE CLASS!"
- Abeda*, Back-to-School student, Kabul
As part of the Skate and Create program, students began multimedia exchanges with youth in over 12 countries, sharing their perspectives with the world. Through photos, video, artwork and blogs, Skateistan students connected with children and youth in the Middle East, Australasia, Europe, North America and South America.
After a tough start to the year due to difficulties sourcing funding, Skateistan continued to grow fueled by the passion and energy of the young students, volunteers and staff.
An ambitious Skate and Create curriculum culminated in the "Youth, Arts, Peace!" exhibition of student work, funded by the United Nations, with nearly 500 youth, families and community members attending the exciting event.
Skateistan had by this point grown to reach 400 children and youth weekly with a continued focus on girls and children from low-income backgrounds.
Skate lessons for children living with a disability began to run weekly with a dozen students taking part. One student, Bilal, progressed so quickly that he became the Educator!
The Youth Leadership program became formalized as a program.Youth in the program began to help guide and run daily classes, as well as form a student council.
For the first time, Skateistan students travelled abroad: four Afghan girl skaters and Youth Leaders attended a week-long youth culture event in Italy.
"FIRST I WANT TO GET AN EDUCATION, ACHIEVE MY LIFE GOALS, BECOME A DOCTOR AND SERVE MY PEOPLE. THEN I WILL GET MARRIED."
- Taban*, Skate and Create student and Youth Leader
As interest in the model grew worldwide, Skateistan joined forces with Benjamin Pecqueur who was busy running skateboard activities in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Skateistan Cambodia was formed!
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the National Olympic Committee agreed to donate land and the German Foreign Federal Office approved a major grant to build another Skate School in the Northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
With Skateistan expanding operations beyond just Afghanistan, it moved its headquarters from Kabul to Berlin, Germany, to grow from an Afghan non-profit organization to an international non-governmental organization (NGO). This not only created a more stable base than a warzone, but also a central hub for Skateistan to connect with supporters around the world.
"IF YOU ARE SCARED YOU END UP DOING NOTHING AND WITHOUT DOING YOU CANNOT ACHIEVE ANYTHING. BUT IF YOU DO THINGS, ALL THAT CAN HAPPEN IS YOU SUCCEED OR FAIL."
- Kareem*, Youth Leader, Kabul
In Afghanistan, activities expanded to include regular climbing workshops on Skateistan’s indoor climbing wall in Kabul, the first in the country. Youth Leaders undertook Outreach sessions and registered more street-working children using skateboarding as the hook.
On September 8, the Skateistan team was devastated when a tragic suicide attack in Kabul killed four students and Youth Leaders: Khorshid, Nawab, Eeza and Parwana. The tragedy reinforced the need for more safe spaces like Skateistan for children and youth in Afghanistan, and around the world.
Despite this setback, positive stories from Skateistan's students continued to inspire the world, including a TEDxKabul talk by a 14-year-old female Youth Leader.
Contruction began on the new Skate School in Mazar-e-Sharif with IOU ramps coming to build the skatepark.
Skateistan was awarded the "Innovation through Sport" award at the Beyond Sport Forum in London, further cementing the impact of their work so far.
"SKATEISTAN'S NOT JUST ABOUT SKATING. IT'S ABOUT GIVING PEOPLE LIFE SKILLS AND HOPE FOR THEIR FUTURE."
- Tony Hawk, Global Advisory Board member, Citizen of Skateistan
Later in September, Skateistan officially opened its first Skate School outside of Afghanistan, building a skatepark alongside classrooms in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The organization continued to partner with other local NGOs in Phnom Penh to reach children and youth.
"FOR ME, I AM VERY PROUD TO WORK AT SKATEISTAN ...THE PEOPLE THAT THINK OF SKATEBOARDING AS A SPORT ONLY FOR BOYS ARE WRONG. I THINK THE WORD 'SPORT' MEANS THAT GIRLS AND BOYS CAN PLAY TOGETHER."
- Tin, Youth Leader now Programs Officer, Phnom Penh
By now Skateistan was reaching 400 children each week worldwide.
After over a year of planning and construction, on May 23, Skateistan officially opened the Skate School in Mazar-e-Sharif, Northern Afghanistan.
Skateistan students continued to take ownership over the organization and programs. Afghan staff and volunteers took over all operations of the Kabul Skate School, and over 70% of Kabul's staff were Skateistan's former students.
"WHEN I CAME TO SKATEISTAN MY LIFE CHANGED SO MUCH BECAUSE WHEN I WAS WORKING ON THE STREETS PEOPLE WOULD HARASS ME. NOW I FEEL GOOD BECAUSE I'M AT SKATEISTAN TEACHING THE STUDENTS. WHEN STUDENTS CALL ME ‘TEACHER' IT MAKES ME VERY HAPPY.
- Hanifa, Educator, Kabul
Youth Leaders from Kabul spoke at Afghan parliament, UN events, and traveled internationally for opportunities in Indonesia, South Korea, and UAE.
The Phnom Penh Skate School had a special visit from pro skateboarder and Global Advisory Board member, Tony Hawk.
"SKATEISTAN PERMITS US TO HELP THE POOREST CHILDREN. WE DO A VERY GOOD JOB AND I'M PROUD TO BE A PART OF THAT."
- Nhoeun, Educator, Phnom Penh
Skateistan was ranked #85 on the "Top 100 NGOs for 2013", compiled by the Global Journal and won the 2013 "UNICEF Education through Sport" award at the Beyond Sport Forum in Philadelphia.
An opportunity came up to expand Skateistan's programs for kids to a new continent!
Oliver visited Johannesburg, South Africa, to begin plans for a fourth Skate School, with the vision of it one-day serving as a regional training hub for Skateistan in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the beginning, Skateistan staff and volunteers started by cleaning up an abandoned skateboarding bowl in central Johannesburg and built a mini-ramp on the rooftop of a local youth NGO. This is where the first Skateistan South Africa sessions took place.
"THE BEST THING ABOUT SKATING IS THAT IT KEEPS US AWAY FROM THE STREETS AND DRUGS."
- Prudence*, Outreach student, Johannesburg
Over in Phnom Penh, Skateistan Cambodia continued to build momentum. The organization partnered with a UN Women campaign to raise awareness about violence against women, and partnered with Building Trust International to build the world's first "tuk-tuk" skate ramp (built into the back of a motorbike) to improve Outreach sessions held at local temples. Youth Leaders also introduced skating to 120 children and youth in the Kandal province.
Afghanistan's first outdoor skate plaza is constructed on the grounds of the Mazar-e-Sharif Skate School. This outdoor skatepark and green area gave students a private space to skate and learn outdoors. The female students were especially excited about the plaza, since most had never skateboarded outside before.
"MY DAUGHTER IS MY HOPE FOR THE BRIGHT FUTURE OF AFGHANISTAN."
- Samira, mother of a former Back-to-School student
The Skate Schools in Afghanistan were visited by pro skateboarder Jamie Thomas, who had been providing sponsorship of shoes and skateboards to Skateistan for several years.
"WE LEARN A LOT ABOUT SOCIAL PROBLEMS IN THE WORLD, AND WE HAVE LEARNED HOW WE, AS YOUTH, MAKE IT POSSIBLE TO SOLVE A PROBLEM. WE LEARNED HOW TO DISCUSS DIFFERENT TOPICS AND SHARE IDEAS... NOW I AM A GLOBAL CITIZEN."
- Mubaraka, Educator, Mazar-e-Sharif
By the end of the year, Skateistan had over 1,100 active students, across the three countries. Skateistan was named a "Champion of Learning Through Play" by Ashoka and the LEGO Foundation.
"SKATEISTAN HAS PROVEN EXTREMELY SUCCESSFUL AT GIVING KIDS, ESPECIALLY GIRLS, A SENSE OF COMMUNITY AND AN OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY AND LEARN."
- Tony Hawk, Global Advisory Board member
Eight years after Oliver first arrived in Kabul with three skateboards, Skateistan had succeeded in reaching over 1,500 children and youth each week in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa, with more than 40% girls taking part in programs.
"THE OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN ARE INDEED CHANGING. I'M SURE THAT MANY OF YOU HAVE SEEN THOSE STUNNING [SKATEISTAN] VIDEOS OF FATHERS PROUDLY TAKING THEIR SHINY-EYED DAUGHTERS TO SHOW OFF THEIR NEWFOUND SKILLS IN THE ANCIENT ART OF SKATEBOARDING."
- Ashraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan, 2015
Thousands more children had been part of Skateistan programs, including many street-working kids who had never written their own name before, or girls who had never had the chance to play a sport.
Skateistan was awarded The Laureus "Sport for Good Award".
"SKATEBOARDING GIVES YOU A COMMUNITY TO INSPIRE YOU, GUIDE YOU, AND CHALLENGE YOU. THROUGH SKATEBOARDING YOU ARE EXPOSED TO PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT IDEAS AND FROM DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS. THIS DEVELOPS TOLERANCE."
- Oliver Percovich
Staff members in Cambodia became UNICEF Cambodia Youth Representatives to combat violence against children. Whilst an iconic image taken by Communications Officer Hamdullah was featured in the United Nations World Humanitarian Day campaign.
"I COME TO SKATEISTAN BECAUSE I WANT TO LEARN NEW SKILLS, SUCH AS SKATEBOARDING AND CLIMBING, BUT ALSO BECAUSE IT IS A SAFE PLACE FOR LEARNING. SKATEBOARDING IS VERY SPECIAL TO ME, I LOVE IT BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE I AM FLYING, LIKE A BIRD."
- Fahima*, Skate and Create student, Kabul.
Skateistan continued to gain the support of students and the community in Johannesburg through regular Outreach sessions, similar to how it began in Kabul in 2007. At each project location, Outreach remains an important first step and entry point for children into Skateistan's programs.
Skateistan staff also travelled the world: Two female Afghan staff competed in a 250km ultramarathon in China’s Gobi Desert, three staff joined UN leadership camps in Germany and Sweden, and a delegation attended an international Model UN conference in Qatar.
In Cambodia, staff and Youth Leaders began Outreach sessions in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, marking the fifth Skateistan location worldwide.
"SINCE I JOINED SKATEISTAN, I FEEL MORE COMFORTABLE AND CONFIDENT AND HAVE LEARNED A LOT FROM THE STAFF AND YOUTH LEADERS WORKING HERE... EVEN IF I FALL, I GET BACK UP AND CONTINUE."
- Dara*, Skate and Create student who is now a Youth Leader, Phnom Penh
In Johannesburg, construction of the official Skate School began in November on a piece of land in the city center.
The Citizens of Skateistan concept was launched to bring together Skateistan's global community of students, staff, skaters and supporters.
"IN THE FUTURE, I WANT TO TEACH OTHER KIDS"
- Thando*, Skate and Create student, Johannesburg
Skateistan was rated as the 65th best non-profit in the world by NGO Advisor, adding to its list of awards.
The Johannesburg staff continued to run Outreach sessions and engage with more local youth and the surrounding community out and about. Meanwhile, the construction of the Skate School continued and the experts from New Line Skateparks came over to help build the skatepark.
The Johannesburg Skate School officially opened on August 11th with Tony Hawk and the Birdhouse skate team putting on a skate demo for the students and their families. Over 400 people attended the opening and it was covered worldwide by the media.
Skateistan hit the 50% female milestone and in honor launched "Give Her Five" -- a fundraising campaign focused on empowering girls.
"WE'RE ALL ABOUT MAKING SURE GIRLS LEARN THAT THERE'S POWER IN BEING A GIRL!"
- Mbali, General Manager, Johannesburg
Skateistan is now an award-winning international non profit organization, empowering children and youth through skateboarding and education. With programs running in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa, Skateistan aims to make leaders for a better world.