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Afghan kids find skateboards the wheel deal

Australian Ollie Percovich says the skateboards he introduced to Kabul's children are the 'carrots' to connect with them and build trust. His 'Skateistan' nonprofit club awaits a big new facility.

July 23, 2009|David Zucchino

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — A white van pulled up to a concrete fountain on a leafy side street in downtown Kabul, trailed by shrieking Afghan children.

"Ollie! Ollie!" they shouted, pounding on the vehicle.

Oliver Percovich, a lanky Australian in a black T-shirt, emerged from the van with a load of banged-up skateboards. The children grabbed the boards and raced off to skate in the cracked bowl of the dried-up fountain.

Skateboarding was unknown to Afghans until Percovich, who followed his social scientist girlfriend to Kabul, starting teaching local children to skate in early 2007. Two years later, their relationship is over and his girlfriend is back in Australia. But Percovich's "Skateistan" nonprofit club has become a magnet for children in Kabul, the capital.

In a country where girls are rigidly segregated from boys and rarely participate in sports, Skateistan has managed to bring boys and girls together. Dozens of children swarm across the fountain every day, sharing boards and showing off improvised skating moves.

Several former street beggars are paid a few dollars a day to instruct playmates on basic techniques. Others are middle-class children who otherwise would have little contact with poor street kids, or with children on the other side of Afghanistan's volatile ethnic mix.

"The boards are just our carrots," Percovich said, shouting over the clack-clack-clack of skateboard wheels. "They're a way to connect with kids and build trust."

For now, Percovich uses the skateboards to entice children into informal lessons and counseling sessions. But starting this fall, he hopes to bring the kids into classrooms.

A few miles away, ground was broken this summer on a $1-million indoor skateboard park that Skateistan is building with local and international donations on land given by Afghanistan's Olympic committee. Percovich says the children will be able to attend English and computer classes and learn "life skills" at the 19,000-square-foot park.

The park, outfitted with skateboarding surfaces and ramps, will be Afghanistan's largest indoor sports facility when it is completed, Percovich said.

In another initiative, Percovich has persuaded private donors to pay $60 a month to send children to Afghan schools. That program targets girls and young children.

"Maybe we can play some small part in keeping these kids from becoming insurgents later on," Percovich said. Skateistan's logo features a skateboard crushing an assault rifle.

Percovich said he didn't come to Afghanistan to start a skateboard movement. But when Afghan children saw him skating, he said, "they fell in love with skating instantly -- and as soon as I let them use the boards, they were hooked."

He scrounged $7,000 in donations his first full year here in 2008. Sharna Nolan, his ex-girlfriend, helped write a detailed proposal that attracted donations, including $15,000 from the Canadian government. Skateistan has since received much larger contributions -- including $125,000 each from the governments of Denmark and Norway and $132,000 from Germany, Percovich said.

There are about 90 children taking part now, with a goal of 360 after the indoor center opens.

The sight of boys and girls exercising together in public has been too much for some Afghans. While the parents of most girls in the program support their daughters' participation, some conservative Afghan men have objected.

"No Afghan has told me flat out: 'Hey, you have to stop doing this,' " Percovich said. "But we do get some fathers or brothers who aren't happy -- like this guy." He pointed to an Afghan man in a blue shirt who had just arrived, allowed his daughter to finish her skating, and then escorted her home.

One day last month, two young Afghan men confronted Percovich and a volunteer and demanded that they remove girls from the skating fountain. One man sucker-punched the volunteer before the men angrily stalked off.

Despite the widespread violence in Afghanistan by the Taliban and other Islamic militants, Percovich said he doesn't feel threatened. In fact, he said, his reception as a skateboarder has been worse in many other countries.

Although several girls said their fathers and brothers approve of their skating with boys, one girl said her brothers beat her when they found out.

The program is for girls up to age 12 and boys up to age 17, although most of the boys are from 10 to 13. After girls reach puberty, traditional Muslim families require them to cover themselves, and they forbid social contact with unrelated males.

Fazila Shrindul, 10, a wisp of a girl who skates with her gold head scarf fluttering behind her, said her father appreciates the 100 afghanis, or about $2, a day she earns teaching other girls to skate. That income helps pay for school, where Fazila now attends fourth grade.

On her daily 30-minute walk to the skating fountain, she passes streets where she once begged for spare change.

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