Amid the rubble of bombed-out buildings in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, rises a joyous sound. Shrieks of laughter mix with the rattle and clack of skateboard wheels as a group of kids gets a chance to do something all too rare in their lives: just be kids. A program called Skateistan is giving them that chance.
Until five years ago, none of them had ever seen a skateboard, let alone ridden one. Afghanistan, a country in central Asia, has been at war for decades. In 2001, the U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan to attack Al Qaeda. That’s the group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in the U.S. The war, now in its 11th year, has led to the deaths of more than 2,000 U.S. military personnel.
The kids of Kabul are familiar with the sounds of gunfire and the sight of troops on patrol and tanks rumbling by. But in 2007, something altogether different rode past: an Australian named Oliver Percovich (below) on a skateboard.
Percovich, who had moved to Kabul to be with his aid-worker girlfriend, quickly attracted a crowd of fascinated kids. He stopped to teach them how to do some simple tricks of their own–and Skateistan was born.
Percovich’s organization now has two facilities in Afghanistan (see map). Each is a combination of school and skate park, offering hundreds of kids a safe place to learn and play.
“We have students from a huge range of backgrounds: literate and illiterate, rich and poor, different ethnicities,” Percovich tells JS. “One of Skateistan’s main goals is to build trust and understanding between (them).” In addition to skateboarding, kids can enjoy art, photography, theater, and other creative activities.
At Skateistan, nearly as many girls as boys are practicing kick-flips, ollies, and truckstand spins. That’s rare in Afghanistan, where until recently girls and women weren’t even allowed to go to school or go out in public without long gowns and veils.
“It feels good that we are all having fun together,” says Durkhanai Stanekzai (dur-KAHN-eye stah-NEK-zay), 13. Once a Skateistan student, she’s now a paid instructor and able to help support her family. “It’s special here,” she says.
“To many children and their families, it is hard to even think about what is possible the next day,” Percovich says. But, he adds, “in the short term, we put smiles on their faces.”
WORD TO KNOW
* ethnicities (n): groups of people who have the same racial, religious, or cultural background and a shared sense of identity
- AREA: 252,072 sq mi (U.S.: 3,717,796 sq mi)
- POPULATION: 33.4 million (U.S.: 314 million)
- PER CAPITA GDP*: $1,000 (U.S.: $49,000)
- ETHNIC GROUPS: Pashtun, 42%; Tajik, 27%; Hazara, 9%; Uzbek, 9%; Aimak, 4%; Turkmen, 3%; Baloch, 2%; other, 4%
- PERCENT OF POPULATION UNDER AGE 15: 46% (U.S.: 20%)
- MEDIAN AGE: 18 (U.S.: 37)
- LITERACY: males, 43%; females, 13% (U.S.: 99%/99%)
* GDP stands for gross domestic product; per capita means “per person.” The amount is the value of all goods and services produced in a counting in a year, divided by the population. It often is used as a measure of a nation’s wealth.
SOURCES: The World Factbook (CIA) and 2012 World Population Data Sheet (Population Reference Bureau)
1. Skateistan has locations in which Afghan cities?
2. The location farther north is near Afghanistan’s border with which three countries?
3. What geographic feature forms part of that boundary?
4. A drive from Kabul to the Khyber Pass–a narrow route through high mountains–takes you through which city?
5. The Khyber Pass connects Afghanistan and what country?
6. The U.S. military bases shown in southern Afghanistan are between which two waterways?
7. Afghanistan’s southernmost area is largely what kind of terrain?
8. A drive west from Kabul takes you to which Afghan city shown?
9. Which city lies closest to 32[degrees]N, 66[degrees]E?
10. What is the name of the narrow strip of Afghanistan that borders China?
 COMMON CORE QUESTIONS
* How did something that Oliver Percovich did for fun evolve into a program aimed at improving children’s lives? (RI 6.2)
* Consider his comment about the kids Skateistan serves in light of the ethnic groups breakdown on p. 7. How might conflict among the groups affect kids’ lives? (RH 4)
 FAST FACTS
* In addition to the two locations in Afghanistan, Skateistan has opened programs in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
* On September 8, 2012, four Skateistan kids were killed in a suicide attack on NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul. The kids had been at their usual jobs, selling goods on the street outside ISAF. (For more on the story, go to us.skateistan.org/news/tragicloss-skateistan-youth.)
 WRITING PROMPT
Write a brief proposal spelling out how an activity you enjoy might be turned into a project that would help people in need.
 DEBATE TOPIC
Are the benefits of a program like Skateistan temporary or permanent?
 EXTEND THE LESSON
* Students interested in supporting Skateistan’s work can find suggestions on how to help at skateistan.org/content/get-involved.
Note: Unless you’re able to make special arrangements, don’t plan on mailing goods to Skateistan in Afghanistan. As founder Oliver Percovich told us, “There isn’t a functional postal system in Afghanistan, so it’s nearly impossible to get anything into or out of the country without paying a lot of money.”
* Skateistan (2009 video): nytimes.com/video/2009/01/25/sports/othersports/1231544948551/skateistan.html
* Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul (2012 video): vimeo.com/15841377
1. Kabul and Mazer-e Sharif
2. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan
3. Amu Darya River
6. Farah and Heimad rivers
10. Wakhan Corridor