Skateistan: A new weapon in the Afghanistan struggle

In the struggle to rebuild Afghanistan, one Australian man has found a powerful and unlikely weapon - his skateboard.

Oliver Percovich has taught thousands of Afghan children how to cruise, ollie and kickflip. And, in doing so, he has lured many of them into the classroom.

The unconventional approach, which is the foundation of his charity Skateistan, was hatched on the streets of Kabul in 2007.

A 33-year-old Mr Percovich had followed his girlfriend to the volatile city and was exploring the streets on a skateboard, which he learnt to ride at age 6.

‘‘People were really surprised to just see a foreigner out on the street,’’ he recalled. ‘‘Anywhere I went in Kabul, I put a skateboard down and it was a magnet.’’

He became convinced that attraction and intrigue could be used to build relationships with the young locals, who had become suspicious of foreigners.

‘‘I saw skateboarding as a potential way of connecting Afghan kids to the rest of the world,’’ he said. ‘‘And I knew those links would help them so much more than any money that would come in through aid.’’

Skateistan, which has since expanded into Cambodia and South Africa, reaches more than 1000 children each week. Skateboarding lessons are coupled with education workshops, aimed at eventually enrolling or re-enrolling street-working children into the public school system.

Mr Percovich will share his story on the stage of the Sydney Opera House on Saturday as part of this year’s TEDxSydney ideas festival.

He said skateboarding is simply ‘‘the carrot’’ to engage and earn the trust of hard-to-reach children.

Afghanistan has the highest proportion of school-aged children in the world - half the population is under the age of 16 - and one of the lowest rates of school attendance.

‘‘Ultimately, no foreigners can change anything in Afghanistan, there have been lots of attempts over the centuries,’’ Mr Percovich said. ‘‘Only Afghans can change the country, but they need a better quality education to do it.’’

The opportunity is particularly life-changing for young girls, who make up almost half of Skateistan’s students. Women are not commonly allowed to play sport and are often excluded from education.

‘‘We probably put 80 per cent of our resources into getting the female participation rate as high as it is,’’ Mr Percovich said. ‘‘We provide transport for girls and we don’t provide it for boys, girls classes have all female teachers - it’s a male-free environment - and we do a lot of home visits with families of girls.’’

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