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A girl skates in front of a historic site in Bamyan, Afghanistan.

Courtesy Skateistan

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.7, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.2, W.6-8.4, W.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.6

NCSS: Culture • Time, Continuity, and Change • Individual Development and Identity • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

THE BIG READ

International

Learning to Skate in a War Zone

In the war-torn country of Afghanistan, a unique school that combines skateboarding and education is giving kids hope for a brighter future 

As You Read, Think About: What important life skills can be learned from skateboarding?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

At first glance, it looks like an ordinary indoor skate park. In one corner, teens gather atop a 6-foot-tall platform, eagerly waiting for a turn to fly down the ramp. In another, 12-year-olds weave through orange traffic cones, their bright head scarves covered by helmets. Throughout the room, shrieks of laughter mix with the rattle of skateboard wheels and the sounds of kids cheering on their classmates.

Until recently, many of these kids in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, had never even touched a skateboard, let alone ridden one. But at this unique school, run by an organization called Skateistan, hundreds of students are now perfecting ollies, kickflips, and other tricks. At the same time, they’re learning key life skills, including courage, teamwork, and perseverance—the strength to never give up even when things are hard.

Such lessons are important for kids in all parts of the globe, and in Afghanistan in particular. That’s because the Central Asian nation has been at war for decades. As a result, it’s long been common for young people there to live in fear of another attack, to see soldiers patrolling the streets, and to be awoken by gunfire in the middle of the night. 

At first glance, it looks like an ordinary indoor skate park. In one corner, teens gather atop a 6-foot-tall platform. They eagerly wait for a turn to fly down the ramp. In another, 12-year-olds weave through orange traffic cones. Their bright head scarves are covered by helmets. Throughout the room, shrieks of laughter mix with the rattle of skateboard wheels. Another sound is kids cheering on their classmates.

Until recently, many of these kids in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, had never touched a skateboard, let alone ridden one. But this is an unusual school, run by an organization called Skateistan. Here, hundreds of students are now perfecting ollies, kickflips, and other tricks. They are also learning key life skills, including courage and teamwork. And they are learning perseverance—the strength to never give up even when things are hard.

Such lessons are important for kids in all parts of the globe, and especially in Afghanistan. That is because the Central Asian nation has been at war for decades. As a result, for a long time now, young people there have lived in fear of another attack, seen soldiers patrolling the streets, and been awoken by gunfire during the night.

Courtesy Skateistan

Female students in Kabul, Afghanistan, learn how to skate. About half of Skateistan’s students are girls.

But in 2007, kids on the streets of Kabul saw something that would change many of their lives forever: an Australian man named Oliver Percovich rolling around the city on his skateboard. He had recently moved to Afghanistan to join his girlfriend, who worked for an aid organization there, and had brought along some of his most prized possessions—his skateboards. 

Wherever he went, fascinated kids crowded around him, eager to learn how to ride. So he stopped to show them a few simple tricks, and the idea for Skateistan was born.

Today, the organization Percovich founded teaches students ages 5 to 17 not only skateboarding but reading, writing, math, and other subjects. They go on field trips to local factories, learn about civics and the environment, and take art classes.

Most important, Skateistan offers the students a safe place to learn and play—and the chance to do something young people in many other parts of the world often take for granted: just be kids. 

“A lot of our students are growing up in unstable environments, in places where their futures are uncertain, where there are a lot of dangers,” says Jessica Faulkner, who works at Skateistan. “So our goal is that through skateboarding and education, we can help them build resilience, set goals, and have a whole lot of fun at the same time.”

But in 2007, kids on the streets of Kabul saw something that would change many of their lives forever. They saw an Australian man named Oliver Percovich skateboarding around the city. He had recently moved there to join his girlfriend, who worked for an aid organization there. He had brought some of his most prized possessions—his skateboards.

Wherever he went, fascinated kids crowded around him. They were eager to learn how to ride. Percovich stopped to show them a few simple tricks. From that, the idea for Skateistan was born.

Today, the organization Percovich founded teaches students ages 5 to 17 more than skateboarding. Students learn reading, writing, math, and other subjects too. They go on field trips to local factories. They learn about civics and the environment. They take art classes.

Most important, Skateistan offers the students a safe place to learn and play. It also offers them the chance to just be kids. That is something young people in many other parts of the world often take for granted.

“A lot of our students are growing up in unstable environments, in places where their futures are uncertain, where there are a lot of dangers,” says Jessica Faulkner. She works at Skateistan. “So our goal is that through skateboarding and education, we can help them build resilience, set goals, and have a whole lot of fun at the same time.”

What You Need to Know

James Mackenzie/Reuters

U.S. and Afghan soldiers work together in eastern Afghanistan in 2018.

The War in Afghanistan: This conflict, the longest in U.S. history, began in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., which killed nearly 3,000 people. That October, the U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan because the country’s Taliban government had given safe haven to Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for those attacks. Since then, more than 2,200 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians have been killed in the war. This past fall, the Taliban and the current Afghan government met for the first time to begin working on a peace deal to end the conflict.

The War in Afghanistan: This conflict, the longest in U.S. history, began in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., which killed nearly 3,000 people. That October, the U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan because the country’s Taliban government had given safe haven to Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for those attacks. Since then, more than 2,200 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians have been killed in the war. This past fall, the Taliban and the current Afghan government met for the first time to begin working on a peace deal to end the conflict.

Decades of War 

For the students of Skateistan, school is often a welcome escape from the hardships of everyday life—and from the violence that has plagued their homeland for generations. 

In 1996, a terrorist group called the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and imposed strict rules based on their extreme interpretation of the Islamic religion. The Taliban oppose democracy, individual liberty, and tolerance of different faiths. (The vast majority of Muslim people—individuals who practice Islam—do not agree with the Taliban’s beliefs.)

Life under Taliban rule was difficult. Taliban leaders took away many basic freedoms and banned music, movies, and TV. They required men to grow beards and limited the types of clothes they could wear. 

For students at Skateistan, school is often a welcome escape from the hardships of everyday life. It is an escape from the violence that has plagued their homeland for generations.

In 1996, a terrorist group called the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. It imposed strict rules based on its members’ extreme interpretation of the Islamic religion. The Taliban opposes democracy, individual liberty, and tolerance of different faiths. (The vast majority of Muslim people, individuals who practice Islam, do not agree with the Taliban’s beliefs.)

Life under Taliban rule was difficult. Taliban leaders took away many basic freedoms. They banned music, movies, and TV. They required men to grow beards and limited the types of clothes they could wear.

AP Images

Taliban fighters in western Afghanistan in 2015

But girls and women fared even worse. Girls older than 8 were barred from going to school. Women were banned from holding most jobs and weren’t allowed to show their faces in public. Whenever older girls and women left their homes, they had to wear burqas—long cloaks that cover the whole body from head to toe—and be accompanied by a male relative. 

Anyone who broke these rules risked severe punishment, including public beatings, imprisonment, or even death.

Then, in October 2001, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan, in part to remove the Taliban from power (see “What You Need to Know,” above). The U.S.-led coalition quickly ousted the terrorist group and helped set up a new Afghan government. 

But many Taliban fighters simply retreated into the nation’s rugged, mountainous countryside, where they regrouped and have continued to carry out deadly attacks. U.S. and Afghan troops have been battling them ever since.

But girls and women fared even worse. Girls older than 8 were barred from going to school. Women were banned from holding most jobs. They were not allowed to show their faces in public. Whenever older girls and women left their homes, they had to wear burqas. Burqas are long cloaks that cover the body from head to toe. Women and girls also had to be accompanied by a male relative.

Anyone who broke these rules risked severe punishment, including public beatings, imprisonment, or even death.

Then, in October 2001, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan. Part of the reason was to remove the Taliban from power (see “What You Need to Know,” above). The U.S.-led coalition forced out the terrorist group. Then it helped set up a new Afghan government.

But many Taliban fighters simply retreated into the nation’s rugged, mountainous countryside. There, they regrouped and have continued to carry out deadly attacks. U.S. and Afghan troops have been battling them ever since.

Courtesy Skateistan

These girls are part of Skateistan’s female soccer team in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan.

Hope Amid the Rubble

In the midst of this ongoing conflict, Skateistan opened its skate school in Kabul in 2009. It featured the country’s first-ever skate park. At more than 13,000 square feet, it was the biggest indoor sports facility in all of Afghanistan. Today, the campus also includes a floor-to-ceiling climbing wall, soccer fields, basketball and volleyball courts, and an area for riding bikes. 

At Skateistan, both boys and girls are able to enjoy these resources. That’s rare in Afghanistan, where girls have long been discouraged from playing sports. 

Although women and girls have made tremendous progress since the Taliban were removed from power, some people in Afghanistan still object to girls taking part in physical activities (see “Understanding Women’s Rights in Afghanistan,” below). While local boys might get the chance to play soccer or ride bikes in public, for example, “girls are often barred from those activities,” says Faulkner. 

At Skateistan, however, female students are free to run around, to skateboard, and to laugh with their friends. “Skateistan was like a dream for me,” says 12-year-old Laiqa*, who’s been a student there for nearly two years. “I love skateboarding.”

During this ongoing conflict, Skateistan opened its skate school in Kabul in 2009. It featured the country’s first-ever skate park. At more than 13,000 square feet, it was the biggest indoor sports facility in Afghanistan. Today, the campus also includes a floor-to-ceiling climbing wall, soccer fields, basketball and volleyball courts, and an area for riding bikes.

At Skateistan, both boys and girls can enjoy these resources. That is rare in Afghanistan, where girls have long been discouraged from playing sports.

Women and girls have made tremendous progress since the Taliban was removed from power. But some people in Afghanistan still object to girls doing physical activities (see “Understanding Women’s Rights in Afghanistan,” below). For example, local boys might be able to play soccer or ride bikes in public. But “girls are often barred from those activities,” says Faulkner.

At Skateistan, however, female students can run around, skateboard, and laugh with friends. “Skateistan was like a dream for me,” says 12-year-old Laiqa*. She has been a student there for nearly two years. “I love skateboarding.”

©Andy Buchanan/Courtesy Skateistan

For many kids in Kabul, Afghanistan, their arrival at Skateistan marks the first time they’ve ever set foot in a classroom.

Back in the Classroom

There’s much more to Skateistan than just sports, however (although skateboarding is by far the most popular activity). In addition to more traditional school subjects, students learn about nutrition, recycling, and how to ace a job interview. They discuss the challenges Afghanistan faces, their hopes for the future, and how they can make their dreams a reality. They can also visit the Skateistan library, find a quiet place to study, or use computers. 

One thing Skateistan students have in common is that they’re grateful for the opportunity to go to school at all. According to the United Nations (U.N.), 3.7 million kids in Afghanistan do not have access to education. That’s nearly half of all school-aged children in the country. 

“Afghanistan is a difficult place to access education,” says Faulkner, “and even more so if you’re a girl.”

But there is much more to Skateistan than sports (although skateboarding is by far the most popular activity). Students learn traditional school subjects. They also learn about nutrition, recycling, and how to ace a job interview. They discuss the challenges Afghanistan faces. They discuss their hopes for the future and how they can make their dreams a reality. They can also visit the Skateistan library, find a quiet place to study, or use computers.

One thing Skateistan students have in common is that they are grateful for the opportunity to go to school at all. According to the United Nations (U.N.), 3.7 million kids in Afghanistan do not have access to education. That is nearly half of all school-aged children in the country.

“Afghanistan is a difficult place to access education,” says Faulkner, “and even more so if you’re a girl.”

Afghanistan

Skateistan has three locations in the Central Asian country of Afghanistan, including one in Kabul, the capital.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Indeed, instead of going to school, many Afghan girls have to help look after their younger siblings and do household chores, including cooking and cleaning. 

Many kids, girls and boys alike, also have to work to help their families get by. In Afghanistan, about half the population lives in poverty. Before attending Skateistan, one student routinely sold gum in the streets of Kabul. About 20 percent of Skateistan’s students have similar jobs, working in the streets before or after school or on days they don’t attend.

Instead of going to school, many Afghan girls have to help look after their younger siblings. They have to do chores such as cooking and cleaning.

Many kids, girls and boys alike, also have to work to help their families get by. In Afghanistan, about half the population lives in poverty. Before attending Skateistan, one student routinely sold gum in the streets of Kabul. About 20 percent of Skateistan’s students have similar jobs. They work in the streets before or after school or on days they do not attend.

“Afghanistan is a difficult place to access education—and even more so if you’re a girl.”

Sometimes, parents with limited resources send their sons to school but not their daughters. Laiqa, for one, begged her parents for years to allow her to attend classes alongside her brothers, but they simply couldn’t afford it. 

“People in our society believe that we should invest in our sons’ lives but not our daughters’, ” says Laiqa’s mom.

But when the family found out that all Skateistan classes are free, they jumped at the chance for Laiqa to enroll. “I am happy that finally I am going to formal school,” says Laiqa. “That makes me proud.”

Sometimes, parents with limited resources send their sons to school but not their daughters. Laiqa, for one, begged her parents for years to allow her to attend classes alongside her brothers. But they simply could not afford it.

“People in our society believe that we should invest in our sons’ lives but not our daughters’,” says Laiqa’s mom.

But when the family found out that all Skateistan classes are free, they jumped at the chance for Laiqa to enroll. “I am happy that finally I am going to formal school,” says Laiqa. “That makes me proud.”

Farshad Usyan/AFP via Getty Images

About 4 million Afghan citizens are displaced within Afghanistan, including this young girl in Kabul.

Ongoing Dangers

Despite the laughter and joy that takes place within Skateistan, the country’s ongoing violence is never far from students’ minds. In fact, the campus itself is hidden behind a tall, unmarked wall to shield it from the outside world—and from people who may think it’s inappropriate for girls to play sports or get an education.

Over the years, the Taliban and other extremist groups have carried out deadly attacks on schools, businesses, and government buildings. And because of continued fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces, many parts of Afghanistan remain volatile and unsafe, with civilians often caught in the cross-fire.

As a result, millions of Afghan men, women, and children have been forced to flee for their lives. According to the U.N., about 2.7 million of the world’s current refugees are from Afghanistan. (Only two other countries—Syria and Venezuela—have produced more refugees.) Another 4 million Afghan citizens are displaced within Afghanistan.

Laughter and joy take place within Skateistan. But the country’s ongoing violence is never far from students’ minds. In fact, the campus itself is hidden behind a tall, unmarked wall. The wall shields the school from the outside world and from people who may think it is not proper for girls to play sports or get an education.

Over the years, the Taliban and other extremist groups have carried out deadly attacks on schools, businesses, and government buildings. And because of continued fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces, many parts of Afghanistan remain volatile and unsafe. Civilians are often caught in the cross-fire.

As a result, millions of Afghan men, women, and children have been forced to flee for their lives. According to the U.N., about 2.7 million of the world’s current refugees are from Afghanistan. (Only two other countries, Syria and Venezuela, have produced more refugees.) Another 4 million Afghan citizens are displaced within Afghanistan.

UNDERSTANDING

Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, they subjected women and girls to violence and denied them many basic rights, including education, employment, and heath care. In recent years, however, female activists have worked hard to secure equal rights, and life has improved for millions of Afghan women and girls.

Today, many Afghan women work as judges, police officers, soldiers, and teachers. Women now make up about a quarter of the country’s parliament—about the same percentage of women serving in the U.S. Congress. 

Still, not everyone in Afghanistan agrees with equality for women and girls, especially when it comes to education. Even today, only one-third of Afghan girls go to school. 

Meanwhile, many people worry that the withdrawal of U.S. troops as part of an agreement to gradually end the war in Afghanistan could spell disaster for the country’s women. Experts fear that the Taliban could rise to power again if U.S. forces are no longer there to stop them—and that the rights that female activists have fought for years to secure could suddenly be stripped away.