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Skateboarding School help kids in Afghanistan

This article was recently brought to my attention. No matter what sport you choose, the ability to have life lessons taught to us through sports is so invaluable. Thanks to William Welch from the USA Today to write this article.

Courtesy William M. Welch, USA TODAY

KABUL ā€” Where once they would have been forbidden to play any sport, Afghan girls are conquering ramps, halfpipes and their own fears on skateboards.

Open six days a week to girls and boys ages 5 through 17, the smooth, broad marble floor of the new Skateistan indoor skate park is a sanctuary for kids in a city where war, destruction and death force them to grow up all too quickly.

“When we slide on the ramp, it makes me feel very happy,” says Marwa Safa, a 10-year-old with a beaming smile and firm handshake. Safa, who has been skateboarding for four months, leads the girls’ warm-up exercises.

“If I didn’t come to Skateistan, I would only go to school and stay home,” says 8-year-old Reshem Mohammadi.

“I like it because it’s a good sport and it keeps me fit,” Mohammadi says.

Fueled by foreign donations and local enthusiasm, Skateistan has introduced the non-traditional sport of skateboarding to this Islamic nation as a way to bridge social and economic gaps and enrich children’s lives.

Youth who otherwise might never encounter one another ā€” from children of the country’s ruling elite to kids pressed into begging or menial labor by impoverished parents ā€” are drawn together at the skateboarding school and park, says Oliver Percovich, the Australian director and founder.

Children participate for free. They get instruction and use of skateboards, helmets and other equipment donated by companies around the world. At least 280 children come each week, 150 of them girls, he says.

Kids must spend an hour in the classroom for each hour of skateboarding. Classes cover a variety of subjects, such as computers, health, English and the Quran. In respect to the Islamic culture, girls’ sessions are separate from the boys’, Percovich says.

Skateistan does not want to replace regular school and has a goal of getting all of its kids enrolled in or returned to school. Skateistan provides clothing, books, transportation and other aid for kids who want to go to regular school.

“I would like to think they come away each week with greater understanding,” Percovich says. “That’s the most important thing we build.”

‘Revolution in sports’

The park, which opened late last year, sits beside National Stadium, where the repressive Taliban regime once held public executions and maimings before U.S.-led forces toppled it in 2001. During a five-year reign, the Taliban greatly restricted human rights, especially for women, including prohibitions on sports and schooling for girls.

Skateistan’s logo is emblematic as well: The image of a Kalashnikov assault rifle, ubiquitous on Kabul’s streets, broken under a skateboarder’s wheels.

Skateistan began as little more than an idea and three skateboards, says Percovich, 35.

An experienced skateboarder, he followed a girlfriend to Afghanistan in 2007 and, with no job, began introducing the sport to this country by skateboarding around Kabul’s broken streets. He stayed after the girlfriend left and found he enjoyed teaching kids to skate in a dry fountain and an empty pool.

With a background in chemistry and social science, Percovich began pitching his idea for establishing a school and facility where children could skate year-round. He called on embassies and secured contributions from the governments of Canada, Norway, Denmark and Germany.

With $600,000 in donations, he won over a crucial ally in Gen. M. Zahir Aghbar, president of the Afghan National Olympic Committee. The committee provided land next to the stadium. Skateistan is now one of 43 sports federations under the Afghan committee and, Aghbar says, “the most successful.”

A former head of the Afghan national police, Aghbar says through a translator that Skateistan is “a revolution in sports” for Afghanistan and “an opportunity to raise up children in a better environment,” countering drugs and terrorism.

“The only solution that leads Afghanistan toward peace and stability is sport,” he says.

Percovich found an Afghan construction company that builds U.S. military facilities to construct the park at a reduced rate: $200,000 for a building with 18,800 square feet of space. IOU Ramps of Germany, an international builder of competition ramps and halfpipes, flew in to make the arena complete.

Skateistan operates on less than $100,000 a year, Percovich says. To become sustainable, he is pursuing income through deals with skateboard equipment companies to market products bearing the Skateistan brand.

Confidence builder

He would like to expand to other Afghan cities. Nearly half the country’s population is 16 or younger, so “you’d be crazy not to focus on this demographic,” Percovich says.

Somaya Rahmani, 23, an Iranian-born swimming coach who teaches in the classroom and on skateboards, says she sees girls blossom once they get their skating legs.

“This school builds the confidence of the girls,” she says through a translator. “When girls first come here, they are not even able to tell their name. They are too shy. But after a few weeks, they are more open, especially when they can skate from the high ramp.”

Feroza Naseri, 10, who has been skateboarding for one month, was happy after doing just that. “I have learned a lot,” she says. “I can skate from the top to the bottom.”

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