Skateboarding school helps to empower kids in Afghanistan

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There aren't many positive stories emanating from Afghanistan these days, but one uplifting and very unusual story is rising out of obscurity in Kabul.

It involves a school that uses skateboarding, of all things, to help empower displaced youths by providing a common passion and a means through which to build relationships.

Skateistan, which was founded in the spring of 2007 and presently boasts an co-ed enrollment of more than 330 students, will fall under the spotlight this week when the short film, "Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul," premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

A feature-length documentary, "Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul," will premiere Jan. 29 at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. This will further increase awareness about an project that has come to symbolize hope for children growing up in an Islamic republic torn apart by civil war and fraught with fear and uncertainty.

The idea for the school was born after Australians Oliver Percovich and Sharna Nolan visited Kabul with skateboards in 2007. The moment they set the boards down, in front of a crumbling Soviet-era fountain, curious kids gathered to see them ridden and to hop aboard and ride them.
Today dedicated teachers and volunteers provide schooling and skateboarding lessons in a 19,000-square-foot facility built on land, in one of Kabul's poorer districts, donated by the Afghan National Olympic Committee. The school is funded largely through private donations.

The short film (trailer is posted above), directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, provides a glimpse into the lives of two Skateistan students. Murza, 17, talks about having grown numb to bomb blasts and violence, and about his former job washing cars, often in freezing temperatures, to make ends meet. 

He attended Skateistan and still works there, helping to maintain the skate ramps and teach new students how to skate.

"Skating has become a habit and I'm addicted to it," he says in the film. "If I don't skate, I become ill. Life is hard in Kabul. It is solely because of the support of Skateistan that I am standing now."

Surprisingly, given Kabul's recent hard-line governance by the Taliban, more girls are becoming part of the Skateistan program.

Fazila, 12, sells gum on the street but also is a student. "Life is hard for me personally because my family is poor and sometimes we can't afford enough to eat," she says. "[But] at Skateistan I don't feel that my surroundings are ruined, I feel as though I'm in a nice place."

Her father does not support her new hobby. Neither do many adults look favorably upon any kids rolling down streets on skateboards. 

But as societies have learned, once kids fall in love with skateboarding they're not easily dissuaded. "Their opinions are meaningless to me," Fazila says. "I really like skating and I won't stop."

The feature-length documentary was produced by Rene Kock and co-produced by Percovich, who is a co-founder of Skateistan. It chronicles the grassroots effort behind the creation of Skateistan. It shows the first skateboarding sessions at the fountain and chronicles the titanic struggle to overcome social, ethnic and gender barriers, and to build bridges of understanding among different cultures.

The movie provides glimpses into the fragile lives of Afghan youths and how some of their lives were changed because of the school, whose crowning moment was the grand opening of a state-of-the-art indoor skatepark facility on Oct. 29, 2009. For that event pros were brought in to demonstrate what can be done on a skateboard.

Reads the closing line in the documentary synopsis: "In the end we show the kids of Kabul skating this amazing new park with the international pros, witnessing the incredible joy and hope that can be generated with the help of four wheels and a board."

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