400— Turkey has announced to deploy an additional 400 troops to Afghanistan next year. There are 400 Australian Defense Force personnel still deployed in Afghanistan. And, in recent weeks, the Pentagon deployed 400 troops to train moderate Syrian rebels in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. —400.
But in Afghanistan, this week and every week, Afghan NGO Skateistan engages 400 youth in Kabul and another 400 in Mazar-e-sharif, gainfully developing trust among neighbors, empowering marginalized youth with opportunities for both constructive social relations and ensuing leadership, and building social capital.
In a nation populated with 68 percent under the age of 25, Skateistan trains a total of about 800 five- to 19-year-olds, 45 percent of whom are girls and 60 percent of whom are low-income, to learn and lead skateboarding weekly; each lesson is paired with an additional hour-long educational workshop.
“They have the chance to be good at something and to get excited about something, and you see the transformation. You see [students] come in the first time, and they’re just shy, and nervous, and giggly and hiding in the corner. And then you see them six months later and they’re just charging, really excited—and not just about skateboarding, but also about leading other students, and acting as role models,” Alixandra Buck, 25, told Her Report. Buck, Skateistan communications manager, began her skating career in 2006 and worked as a six-month volunteer programs officer for the NGO’s Cambodia facility before relocating to the Berlin headquarters and again to her current base in Mazar-e-sharif, Afghanistan.
Buck and her coworkers intend to provide a safe and supportive environment in which trust reaches across the Afghan-Western divide. Skateistan encourages students of varying ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to express their opinions on issues of concern to them, envisioning the future of their country through social asset-building activities and youth development forums. Only then, according to Skateistan, can the youth who make up the majority of Afghanistan, resiliently claim ownership over the tribulations they will inevitably inherit, and participate more fully in a civil society.
As a non-competitive global sport, skateboarding is particularly impactful for Afghan girls, as they’re typically excluded from traditional sports like football.
“You take a skateboard out in a developing country, and you’re very quickly surrounded by a million kids…What [founder, Oliver Percovich,] found—it wasn’t just little boys who were noticing here; it was girls, too,” Buck said.
Percovich therefore endeavored to teach girls, too, on separate days at his would-be skate park by his would-be all-female staff; Afghanistan resultantly holds the highest rate of female participation in skateboarding of any country in the world. Now, in Afghanistan, girls defy the odds; they connect with each other and boys alike through the avenue of skateboarding.
“You don’t see girls playing football or kite-flying,” Buck explained. In fact, they’re not even allowed to ride bikes. But prior to the introduction of Skateistan, skateboarding had no part in Afghan context; there were no preconceived social constraints. “For one, people kind of perceived it as more of a game than a sport, so that made it more acceptable for girls to participate—like hopscotch…and there were just no social rules set up that said girls couldn’t do it…Skateboarding was so new, we were able to present it as a sport for girls and boys, not how it’s perceived in the Western world. That stereotype just hasn’t made it here.”
While access to the Internet is ever-increasing, Skateistan doesn’t provide skateboarding magazines or other images to students that might exemplify Western stereotypes of the sport as male-dominated. Instead, the staff focuses on keeping the facilities equal and safe spaces.
The NGO’s management is in regular communication with the Afghanistan NGO Safety Organisation (ANSO) in an effort to remain atop security updates, and provides transportation to and from its facilities as a safety precaution for girls. Further, students are kept off the streets, skating only in the supervised and secure private facilities that are built and run with community consent.
“We connect with all of the local Mullahs, which are the religious leaders, and we make sure that they’re comfortable with what we are doing,” Buck said of earning community consent. Skateistan also regularly meets with generals and parents to involve local direction and interests, ultimately creating a project culture that fosters respect, cooperation and equality among staff, volunteers and participants.
But remaining culturally-appropriate is no easy feat for a singular mission serving more than one culture and thus satisfying varying notions of “appropriate.”
In 2009, Skateistan opened its first skate park in Kabul, Afghanistan, registering just 40 students. In 2011, Skateistan began its first project outside of Afghanistan in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. By 2012, Skateistan was registering about 400 students a week, and in May 2013, opened its doors in Mazar-e-sharif, as a second location in Afghanistan.
In March 2014, Skateistan began outreach in South Africa and is currently building funding for a skate park facility there, as well. Johannesburg is the primary project for this year.
While tuition for each facility is without charge, developing a multi-national NGO does not come cheap. At its onset in 2009, the funding for Skateistan cost $149,384, according to site statistics. By 2012, costs accrued to $508,551, and with international aid pulling out of Afghanistan, Buck worries that funding will be harder to find.
“The international priorities are changing. Countries are sending less money to Afghanistan. I think that is one of our major challenges moving forward—making sure that we have enough secured, sustainable funding in a changing environment…even though the country is just as much in need,” she said.
Major donors such as The Embassy of Finland and The United States, The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, The Tony Hawk Foundation and The Skateroom keep Skateistan rolling. In fact, Keep Skateistan Rolling is the slogan of the NGO’s bi-annual campaign. Last December was Skateistan’s most successful fundraiser thus far, through which it raised over $60,000; the first Keep Skateistan Rolling for 2015 is planned for July.
“Even if the governments and military pull out, we plan on staying here,” Buck said. For her, the work is worth it. She concluded, “Watching [Afghan girls] have the same feeling that I had when I was 15 and started skateboarding, and be just as excited about it as I was and still am…yeah…that’s the best.”
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