When Oliver Percovich followed his girlfriend at the time to Afghanistan in 2007 he also packed his skateboards.
The war-wracked country has since become the unlikely setting for an emerging skate culture that is helping give children a new sense of purpose.
A keen skateboarder since the age of six, Oliver kept up his hobby even in Kabul’s chaotic streets, attracting feverish interest from local youngsters eager to have a go.
Soon he was pooling his boards and running informal skate sessions.
The Australian later went on to establish Skateistan – Afghanistan’s first skateboarding school.
The Kabul-based NGO teaches both male and female students and aimns to help young people affect change on issues facing their country.
As well as skateboarding, students are also given the opportunity to develop computer and English skills.
Decades of war in Afghanistan have resulted in an overwhelming youthful demographic, with 65 per cent of the country’s estimated population of 30 million aged under 16.
Despite the billions of dollars spent on aid and military intervention in Afghanistan, Oliver firmly believes it is the youth who have the real ability to arrest their country’s decline.
“No foreigner can change anything in Afghanistan,” he said.
“I really believe that if the youth can make good choices then a lot of changes will happen – and they really deserve that chance.”
And while Skateboarding may seem an unlikely vehicle for social change, Oliver says local children have embraced it wholeheartedly, including young girls.
“They’re picking it up extraordinarily fast,” he said.
“They’re like sponges for information and they’re just totally stoked on what we’re doing.
“We’re working from the coalface and not by remote control.”
With a tenuous security situation and a high burn-out rate, working on the ground, however, is not without its risks.
Conditions in Afghanistan also pose enormous logistical challenges, including astronomical internet costs.
Oliver concedes working hours are often punishing and staff are required to maintain a low profile and travel to work outside rush hour in order to minimise the threat of suicide bombings.
When temperatures dipped below minus 10 last winter and the office pipes froze staff were forced to work at their desks in their sleeping bags.
Despite the challenges, Skateistan has expanded its program to include Cambodia and the organisation is now in the process of opening another office in Berlin.
The organisation also raised funds to build a skatepark on land donated by the Afghan National Olympic Committee and some 400 kids take part in its weekly skate sessions.
Skateistan also accepts volunteer skate instructors and support staff both in its Berlin and Kabul offices.
Growing up, Oliver says skateboarding helped give him a sense of identity, as well as a culture and community to tap in to – something desperately needed by Afghanistan’s dislocated youth.
He sees skateboarding as an important tool in bridging Afghanistan’s often fractious ethnic, social and cultural divides, he says.
“When you’re skateboarding you don’t see what race they are; they’re simply another skateboarder and that’s something fairly unique,” he said.
“When people share something there’s a greater chance of understanding.”
the Experience Network