Oliver Percovich didn’t think he was doing anything out of the ordinary when he offered up his skateboard to the curious youth of Kabul, Afghanistan. But what he found was that the simple act of sharing his childhood passion with a new culture meant the beginning of a special bond leading to one of the most successful aid initiatives for youth around the world.

What do you see when you think of children in Afghanistan?  Perhaps in your mind they’re rough around the edges with a mean look upon their face. Maybe they’re standing as tall as the rifle they’re holding, or they could even be looking beaten and bruised, begging for money on the streets. But I bet you’d never have imagined a smiling 12 year-old Afghani child in a helmet with knee and elbow pads cruising down a ramp in a brand new skatepark.

Oliver Percovich had no idea what to expect when he followed his girlfriend to Kabul, Afghanistan seven years ago. He certainly didn’t comprehend that his skateboard would get so much attention on the streets, but it turned out to be the tool that bridged the cultural gaps in his new surroundings. As he began to connect with the youth through a sport that he has been practicing since the age of six, he found that it allowed for more than a moment on fun. “When I first got to Afghanistan I was sharing skateboarding, but the Afghan kids shared with me how to actually be bonded with your family. Friendship meant so much that they were going to take a bullet for their friends. It just really made me think about myself and how I related to my friends and family.”

This connection and mutual respect for one another led Percovich to start the non-profit organisation, Skateistan, in 2007. The organisation works with children between the ages of 5-18, not only teaching them how to skate but also providing access to education. The initiative gathers funding from governments all over the world including Germany, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Finland. They also raise about $200,000 online every year by individuals who take on fundraisers and events, and through Skateistan merchandise sales online.

“We built a skatepark in Kabul and another one in northern Afghanistan (in) Mazar-i-Sharif. The one in Kabul has about 450 students and the one in Mazar-i-Sharif has now 150 but it has the capacity for up to 1000 a week. We have two in Cambodia; two in Phnom Penh and then we’ve got another one in Johannesburg that we’re just starting up now.  So they all look very different to each other because they’re in different countries with different cultures so it’s a bit of a different set up.” says Percovich.

Anyone can appreciate the value of such an immaculate structure anywhere in the world, but the paradox of such a skatepark in the midst of war-torn and run-down Kabul has given the students a new found sense of entitlement and the passion to learn more. “It’s pretty weird to have this pristine skatepark that would be great anywhere in the world! The kids are stoked on it because they’ve got this really clean space that’s just so much fun” explains Percovich. With such a glorious venue at their feet, the students tend to treat the park with great respect and take care of it with a strong sense of pride. “Right now the Kabul facility is 100 percent run by Afghan staff and 70 percent of staff are former students. It’s changed their lives and they want to then change the lives of other kids. Both of the parks in Afghanistan have marble floors which are amazing to skate on, but marble is really cheap in Afghanistan!”

Percovich also found a loophole in Afghan culture; he introduced a sport unknown to the people which meant that women had not yet been told that they couldn’t take part. For the first time girls were welcomed to participate in a notoriously male dominated sport. Percovich stated in his talk at TEDxSydney this year that worldwide only 5 percent of skaters were female, however due to Skateistan’s initiative in Afghanistan, female skaters make up 40 percent of their students.

Once the children become students at Skateistan, they are given the opportunity to learn more about globalization as well as their own nation. Percovich says that “Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan were really closed off from the rest of the world for a good 25 years” leaving the people quite sheltered and unaware of the what was happening past their borders. “We live in a globalized world; it’s essential they work out the connections and work out what makes sense to them in their culture, but they’ve got to know what’s actually out there in the first place. What we do is just expose them to things they haven’t seen before; we show them how social media works, we show them how to use a video camera, we show them how to do a drawing or tell a story or write a blog. It’s about them expressing themselves and telling their story and sharing that with other people.” he says.

Although Skateistan has managed to build a system in which the children are empowered to create their own change, Percovich doesn’t believe that all aid is beneficial, “A lot of aid around the world is basically poverty porn” he says. “Money plays a small role; ultimately aid has a lot to answer for. A lot of countries that have received aid in the last sixty years have gone backwards and become more corrupt.  I’d really like (aid) to be based on a feeling of shared humanity and building up actual genuine caring about other people.”

He goes on, “Most foreigners come into a place like Afghanistan and say “Oh the education system is ruined and the legal system doesn’t work and this is wrong and that is wrong…” but you’re talking to a very proud people and in their eyes it’s better than when there was war. They simply need to realise things for themselves and have a look at the changes they want to see and take steps to make those changes. No foreigners and no NGOs can change any of that so we’re not trying to do that. All Skateistan is trying to do is give a really strong platform to the kids so that they can make those changes for themselves.”

If you want to learn more about Skateistan you can pick up the book ‘Skateistan’ that details all of the amazing work done by this innovative company. Oliver Percovich’s talk at TEDxSydney can be foundhere, and if you want to know all of the facts with all of the statistics, you can find what you need on their website.

Image via BBC.