Skateistan offers education, safety, and fun for Afghanistan’s youth
By Maija Liuhto
THE CROWDED AND OFTEN PERILOUS THOROUGHFARES OF KABUL, the capital city of Afghanistan, are no place for children. But still, between frequent car bombings and the ever-present hum of military helicopters overhead, the youth of Kabul flock to the city center, often forced to work long days alongside their elders to make ends meet. But for the lucky few there is a small refuge. Najib Safi is one of them, and he is getting ready to skateboard.
The 12-year-old boy puts on his protective gear and patiently waits his turn. Finally he jumps on his skateboard and rolls down a ramp in Kabul’s only skate park. His grey shalwar kameez, a traditional long shirt, flaps in the air as he whizzes past his friends, a wide smile on his face.
Every Thursday, Najib and his friends Sadiq Naqibullah and Farzad Bashir walk 30 minutes each way from their neighborhood in eastern Kabul to spend an hour learning how to skateboard. After the lesson is over, they spend another hour doing something creative or learning about different topics. Today, they will be reading the Quran.
Najib is taking part in a program known as Skate and Create, run by the organization Skateistan. The nonprofit, founded in Kabul in 2007 by Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich, aims to use skateboarding and education for youth empowerment. Today, Skateistan runs programs in three countries—Afghanistan, South Africa and Cambodia—and administers activities for around 1,500 children each week.
Skate and Create students attend once per week and “gain valuable access to sports and creative arts, in which they explore a variety of topics,” Skateistan Communications Manager Hannah Bailey tells GOOD. The Kabul site also runs Back-to-School and Youth Leadership programs. “Skateistan focuses on at-risk youth,” Bailey says, “in particular girls and youth from a low income background.”
The group also loans skateboards to Najib and other children for these thrill-filled skating excursions, which are far removed from the daily routines of these low-income youth.
The security situation has worsened in all of Afghanistan since the drawdown of international troops in 2014. The Taliban track police cars, government employees, and politicians and try to attack them in the streets. Street-working children have no choice but to approach vehicles in hopes of selling the passengers chewing gum or getting a small sum of money in return for wiping their windshields. Other children sell fruit or collect plastic to sell.
Working the streets
There are no official estimates on the number of street-working children in Afghanistan, but some nongovernmental organizations put the number close to 600,000. Skateistan has worked with these children for almost 10 years now, introducing them to activities they would not otherwise have access to.
Najib is one of these children. He contributes to his family’s income six days a week by pushing a wheelbarrow in a market close to his home. The area is bustling with fruit and vegetable sellers and customers who pop in and out of tiny shops. Najib’s job is to watch for those who cannot carry their goods home themselves and offer to deliver them in his wheelbarrow for a small sum of money.
Najib spends seven to eight hours a day pushing his wheelbarrow from the marketplace to people’s homes and back. In the summer, the relentless heat of Kabul adds another obstacle. “It is very hard to work like this,” Najib tells GOOD. “Sometimes the things people put in my wheelbarrow are too heavy for me.” For each trip he makes only around 10 to 30 afghanis, with his daily earnings usually amounting to around $1.50 in U.S. dollars. Nevertheless, this is valuable income for his poor family.
He has four brothers and five sisters. Along with their parents, they live in a small, mud-colored house next to a cemetery on a hilltop where white gravestones dot the treeless, dusty landscape. Across the road, soulless Soviet-built apartment blocks rise above treetops. This is where the middle class of Kabul lives and from where the bulk of the market’s customers comes. Their lives are light-years away from Najib’s realities but only a stone’s throw away from his house.
Najib’s father, Gul Agha, suffered a heart attack three years ago and has not been able to work since, leaving the responsibility of providing for the family to his young sons. But his family’s financial situation had been dire long before—roughly 23 percent of Kabul’s residents live in poverty—and Najib cannot even remember when he first started working.
Despite the difficult circumstances, education always has been valued in Najib’s family, and his father continues to encourage him to go to school and Skateistan. Najib wants to become a doctor. Luckily, he was admitted to a charitable school called Aschiana that gives basic education classes for street children. The school’s hours are organized in a way that the children can attend classes in the morning and work in the afternoons.
Time for play
With school and work taking up to 12 hours every day, Najib barely finds time to play with his friends. “I do not like to work. I wish I could concentrate on studying, but this is the situation of my family. I think the families of the children who do not have to work must be rich,” he says, smiling sheepishly.
Some days, when he sees the market is empty, he escapes to play hide-and-seek or catch-me-if-you-can with his friends. Only on Fridays, the weekly Muslim holiday, does he get to stay home all day.
Skateistan offers a much-needed break from the hardships faced by street-working children. There, Najib and his friends are allowed to be kids. For two hours every week, they can forget about their worries and enjoy the thrill of skateboarding. Najib hasn’t learned how to do flips or other skateboarding tricks yet, but he has seen older children do them and aspires to master the moves himself.
“Skateistan provides a safe space for youth to play and learn. Through skateboarding they develop empathy for one another and become part of a supportive community,” Bailey says. “In the skate park, youth from different backgrounds are able to form strong friendships and the novelty of skateboarding, compared to more mainstream sports, has been especially enticing for at-risk youth.”
Skateistan organizes outreach sessions in different parts of the city where local children are shown how to skate. The group’s educators and youth leaders take part in these sessions. This usually piques the children’s interest, and they are given enrollment forms to take to their parents.
Najib heard about Skateistan from a girl named Fatima who organized an outreach session in Najib’s neighborhood. He was hooked from that moment on.
“When Najib came home with the form, I just looked at his face and said, ‘OK, you can go,’” Gul Agha tells GOOD. “He was so happy and excited that I couldn’t say no.”
Learning through arts and sports
Not all parents are so agreeable. Whatever time children spend at Skateistan and away from working will impact the amount of money they make. This is where the creative arts-based education provided by Skateistan comes in. Even Najib’s father admits that he might not have allowed Najib to go if there was no educational component involved.
“Sport is good for health, but alone it is not sufficient. It will not put food on the table,” Gul Agha says. “I want Najib to use the skills he learns at school and Skateistan to find work. I want him to do better in life than I did.”
The curriculum the children are taught in the Skate and Create program, according to Bailey, includes topics such as human rights, the environment, and hygiene—areas typically not taught in public schools of Afghanistan. The children also learn photography, sculpture, and religious studies.
Rahila, the mother of Najib’s friend Farzad, says it would be better if Skateistan taught school subjects to the children. “The children are happier than before because of Skateistan, but it has not had an impact on their studies,” she says.
The idea behind Skate and Create, however, is not necessarily to help improve the children’s performance at school. “The aim is to provide valuable life skills through creative arts and skateboarding,” Bailey says. “Both are educational and promote learning through play.”
And play is what the children seem to value the most. Whenever Najib mentions Skateistan, his eyes light up with enthusiasm. His parents have noticed a positive change in Najib’s mood since he started going to Skateistan. And everything the organization offers is free.
Growing security concerns
But the decision to let Najib go to Skateistan also has become one of security.
Walking to the skate park and going to work has become riskier for Najib, because of the increase in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. “I am so worried about him all the time,” Gul Agha says and shakes his head.
Najib sometimes feels scared when he has to move around the city, pushing his wheelbarrow.
Four years ago, there was an explosion outside the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. The area is popular among working children who try to sell trinkets, scarves, and chewing gum to foreigners. Six children died as a result of the bomb, four of whom used to go to Skateistan. Najib has heard of the incident but is not aware that the children died. “I think the shattered glass from nearby windows injured them,” he says thoughtfully.
He remembers a bomb blast from November 2015 particularly well. He was at school when a magnetic bomb attached to a police vehicle went off nearby. “Boom!” Najib imitates the sound of the explosion. He describes how all the windows broke and the entire building shook. “We were so scared at that time,” he says. “Some students fainted out of fear.”
Skateistan has decided to tighten its security policy because of the situation in Kabul, and outsiders no longer are allowed to visit the skate park. Still, according to Bailey, the organization itself never has been a target of threats.
But bombs and terrorist attacks are not the only causes of worry for Najib’s family.
Two months ago, a man stood waiting for Najib on his way to work. He promised Najib he would buy him whatever he wanted if he agreed to go to a park in the center of the city with him. “He told me not to tell my family and that made me suspicious,” Najib says. Najib told his family about the incident and his parents became worried, thinking the man was a child smuggler. They told Najib not to leave the house for some time. For two weeks he didn’t go to Skateistan because he was afraid the man would follow him. Eventually, the man disappeared.
After the man stopped bothering Najib, he immediately rejoined Skateistan’s classes. “During the two weeks I was gone, I noticed how much I missed skateboarding.”
Najib’s mother, Bargi Gul says, “We were very worried then. But at the same time, there are explosions everywhere. How can I tell him not to go somewhere, when anything can happen anywhere?”
The joy of skateboarding continues to draw children to Skateistan, despite the risks. Having a place to escape from the cruel realities of life in a conflict zone is something children like Najib cherish.
When Najib’s day finally is over, it’s already dark. He usually goes home around 8 or 9 p.m., only to stay up a few more hours to complete his homework. But with Skateistan, he has something to look forward to every week.
“I cannot wait for it to be Thursday,” he says. “I feel so happy when I can skate with my friends.”