Skateboarding in Skateistan!
JAN 16 — Merza Muhammadi is one of the best skateboarders in Afghanistan. This 17-year-old is an instructor and mid-level manager at Kabul’s only skatepark, Skateistan, and is looked up to by hundreds of Kabul kids. But Merza hasn’t always been in this positive situation. Only four years before, he was working the streets cleaning cars to help support his family.
“Skateistan has been a real positive influence in my life,” said the ever-smiling Merza.
Started in 2007, Skateistan is more than just an ordinary skatepark. It’s an NGO that aims to bring together the many different ethnic youth in Kabul, whether privileged or not, through the sport of skateboarding.
“Skateboarding really fits the Afghan psyche in the sense that it challenges the local kids to overcome personal fear and limitations in whatever situations,” explained founder and executive director, Oliver Percovich.
Merza had always been interested in skateboarding ever since he saw pictures in a skateboarding magazine, but never had the opportunity to try it out. Not until he met Oliver who was working in Kabul at that time and often skated near an old fountain in a park on the outskirts of the city. That was back in 2007.
“Merza worked at a car wash nearby and he and his friends would come and join us,” added Oliver, who originally hails from Australia.
That was also around the same time when Oliver decided to form Skateistan because he saw that skateboarding could actually help the Afghan youth community, which according to current censors, make up around 70 per cent of the country’s population.
With the help of the international skateboarding scene, Oliver and a group of skateboarding friends managed to gather funds to finally build and open the skatepark in October 2009 in the Ghazi Stadium compound (notorious as the location used by the Taliban for public executions during their term in power).
Today, Skateistan has around 10 paid staff and volunteers from around the world working there and many of them are skateboarders themselves. It also has around 40 local Afghan employees and volunteers.
Aside from skateboarding lessons, the skatepark organises classes for the kids in English, theatre, art and multimedia skills. And recently, it also started a "back to school" programme in collaboration with local schools where it helps non-school-going children enrol into regular schools by providing them with school supplies and also additional lessons in writing, mathematics, language skills and religion.
It is difficult to continuously fund Skateistan but the international skateboarding scene seems to be a constant and regular support system. In addition to fund raising through donations, skateboarding companies such as Fallen Footwear, TSG and Zero Skateboards donate helmets, safety pads, shoes and skateboards for the kids to use.
But at the moment, a bulk of the financing at Skateistan is from governments such as Germany, Norway and Denmark. However, Oliver realises that these governments won’t be in Afghanistan forever.
“We’re trying very hard to be self-sustaining and we are actually coming out with our own product lines with Fallen Footwear so we can have a revenue stream of our own,” explained Oliver.
In the meantime, the 300 odd kids who attend Skateistan are definitely getting better at skateboarding, with Merza leading the pack. Having climbed his way up the ranks,
from volunteer to maintenance and now skateboarding instructor and manager, Merza aims to be a professional skateboarder once he finishes school.
“My family is really happy that I’m involved in skateboarding and I want to one day travel the world and attend skateboarding competitions,” he said.
“Merza is a very good skateboarder. Much better than me now! But what he probably doesn’t realise is that there are five-year-old kids in other countries with more opportunities who can skate better than him,” said Oliver matter-of-factly.
But he is also quick to point out that the success story here is not that Merza is a good skateboarder or not. The real success is that he is now a mature and self-confident teenager who has learnt responsibility and camaraderie with his fellow Afghans just through the sport of skateboarding.
“In fact, he earns five times more than he did when he was cleaning cars on the streets. He’s definitely his family’s main breadwinner. Who knows, maybe one day he can take over my position,” smiled Oliver.
Somehow, whenever I travel to war-torn countries, the stories that get me excited are never the ones that involve violence, combat or death. What I really enjoy are the feel-good stories that give a sense of hope and optimism. And I found just that in Skateistan.
(If you would like to help or be involved with Skateistan in any way, visit their website at Skateistan.Org. You can choose to donate, buy Skateistan products or even offer yourself as a volunteer.)
Stay tuned next week for Part 7 of Zan Azlee’s "Guide to Afghanistan: The Adventures of a KL-ite." View videos of his adventures at http://fatbidin.com/afghanistan/