I went to Afghanistan with my skateboards on a tourist visa in 2007. As I spent time talking to people and skateboarding, I got a feeling that a lot of the projects led by international agencies in Afghanistan were way too complex to actually work. Those ideas were dreamt up very far away from Afghanistan and didn’t lead to much local ownership.
These projects were not working with young people although half the population in Afghanistan was under 16. So I thought, “Why aren’t they doing something with kids?” For any work in Afghanistan, hope seemed very important.
Skateistan started in a very grassroots way: It was simply me with a couple of Afghan friends, encouraging both boys and girls to take part. When skateboarding as a kid myself, I always noticed that whatever the divides in the rest of the town, skateboarders didn’t care about where you came from: It was more about where you were at.
The huge advantage that skateboarding had in Afghanistan is that it was really new. If we’d tried to do a project with any sort of ball, it would have been very hard to get girls involved because that would be seen as a boys’ sport. I worked hard right from the start to get support from local religious clerics so girls could skateboard.
Now we have 400 children who come to Kabul weekly for an hour of skateboarding and an hour of classroom activities. Of that number, 40 percent are girls. We have just opened a site in Mazar-e-Sharif, where we will be able to work with up to 1,000 children, and we also have a project in Cambodia.
We put a lot of energy into working with as many street children as possible. There are an estimated 80,000 street children, boys and girls, working in Kabul. Many children begin working in Afghanistan from the age of 4 or 5. They might sell guns or lighters, wash cars, shine shoes or beg with a can. Some children even walk around with a set of scales around their neck offering to weigh people.
The number of street-working children is partly due to family drug addiction. Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the heroin in the world, or at least the opium that then gets turned into heroin. I’ve seen kids as young as 7 or 8 who have obviously used some sort of opiate, so these children are really very vulnerable.
Everybody is equal at Skateistan. It doesn’t matter what background or family you come from. The times that we have had students involved in suicide bomb attacks have been the most difficult to deal with. We had one last September, another in December 2011. For the children who were injured in 2011, we were able to work together with another nonprofit to send them for treatment in the U.S.
Last September, a few of our staff and students were killed. I saw some of [their] brothers and sisters ... attending Skateistan and just putting everything into their classes. You could just see that it was also a memory to their siblings who had died and how much it meant to them, to be part of what we do.