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Interview with Skateistan Founder Oliver Percovich

First, just a little bit of background? Where did you grow up? Before Skateistan, did you have any desire or idea that you would be working in skateboarding as a career?

I was born on September 11, 1974 in Australia. I grew up in Papua New Guinea (PNG) (1980- 1985) and Australia, but travelled a few times to Europe as a kid. I got my first skateboard in August 1980 and I brought it to PNG with me. I managed to get skateboarding banned at every primary school that I went to by bringing the board to school and riding it on breaks. The board was a Lightning Bolt fiberglass board with SGI Trucks, Slick Stoker wheels and the bearings were not sealed. I think it was a 1973 model but I can't be sure. In 1985 when we moved back to Australia, the Variflex team was doing a demo on a vert ramp in Greensborough shopping center which was a local mall and they had a competition that kids could take part in, so I did. It involved tic tacking around some traffic cones then you could do whatever you wanted. I did a few cess slides and some other little tricks and won a Variflex "Shock Treatment" deck. That was the highlight of my skateboarding career.


When did you first travel to Afghanistan, and what was your initial motivation to go there? 

I first travelled to Afghanistan in 2007. I wanted to see another country. I had travelled to quite a few countries before and I thought it would be interesting to find out about another culture. The more I travelled the more I was convinced that people are the same all over the world and the small differences between people were really interesting to me.


How soon after you're first visit did you return? Did you have intentions of starting Skateistan on that 2nd trip or did it just kind of grow as you spent time there?

After the first trip to Afghanistan, which lasted 7 months, I went on holiday in India with the intention of going back to Afghanistan to start a job as a researcher/analyst. In India, I rented a Royal Enfield Bullet and rode across India to Calcutta from Delhi then put the bike on the train and went back to the capital. I got itchy feet almost on arrival and set off north from Delhi. About 80 miles north of Delhi, I had a very big accident when a cow walked onto the road directly in front of me and I came off the bike. I then flew back to Australia for surgery on my shoulder and when I had recovered I went back to Afghanistan to start Skateistan. The idea for Skateistan had already been slowly growing in my mind, from the initial enthusiasm of the local Afghan kids to skateboard.


What was it that first gave you the spark to start the Skateistan organization? 

The spark was that I had become convinced that the only way to create positive change in Afghanistan was through children and good quality, creative education. Skateboarding could attract the kids and educating in a creative way could change the country. I saw other efforts to change the country failing and I saw it as hypocritical to criticize other efforts if I didn't try to do something myself. I am passionate about skateboarding and the importance of education so putting them together was a dream job. I wanted to connect the kids in Afghanistan to the rest of the world and I thought it would be easy through skateboarding.

In your time in Afghanistan building the organization did you ever face a lot of opposition from the people of Kabul? Was there ever a time you felt like you were pushing the boundaries of what would be acceptable, did you ever feel threatened?

At one point four of them surrounded me in the kitchen, grabbed me by the neck and threatened me to forget the whole idea and get out of Afghanistan.

In 2008 I faced a lot of problems. Firstly running out of money and at the same time being told by many Afghans that it would be impossible to keep on doing skateboarding lessons with girls. Some of the young Afghan guys that were first involved in skateboarding in 2007 lost focus and hope midway through 2008. I tried hard to encourage and motivate them but it just turned them against me because they wanted to keep getting paid while doing nothing. At one point four of them surrounded me in the kitchen, grabbed me by the neck and threatened me to forget the whole idea and get out of Afghanistan. I persisted because what they didn't get was that it wasn't about them, who were privileged, middle-class Afghans in their 20s. It was about the kids working in the streets that had nothing and really loved skateboarding. I stuck by the street-working kids and they’ve now proven to be the most loyal, hard working and awesome skate instructors, teachers and managers you could ever hope for.

There are obviously also lots of security risks when working in a war-torn and still violent country. Suicide attacks and so-called “complex attacks” with multiple bombers and targets simultaneously occur monthly in Kabul. Statistically though, more foreigners die of carbon monoxide poisoning from faulty gas/wood fire heaters in winter each year in Kabul than from suicide attacks, so go figure.


The Skateistan organization seems to have grown incredibly fast since you first started it, and you've now opened up new locations in Cambodia as well? What do you attribute the fast growth and success to?

A big part of the successes of Skateistan are the children in the programs. They love coming to Skateistan and they are the biggest advocates for what we do. The key is local ownership. They rightly celebrate every success as their own. Change at Skateistan is driven from both the bottom up and top down. Because everyone at every level is so invested in what we do, we get amazing results. It helps that nothing is more fun than skateboarding and the strong sense of community that skateboarding creates.

In skateboarding in general right now with the access to the internet we've seen the progression of tricks and skill level grow exponentially. Do the children involved in Skateistan have access to see all the skateboarding go on around the world, do you purposefully show them magazines, internet sites, videos, or do you prefer to let them find it for themselves and create their own tricks, ideas and culture.

We are just sharing skateboarding in its purest form and letting the kids make their own culture around it.

In Afghanistan at least, we purposely don't show them anything to do with skateboarding culture around the world. Introducing a different culture or western culture isn’t appropriate at this point in time. They don't see any skate magazines, videos, fashion or music because of how different the culture is in Afghanistan. We would have a serious backlash from the parents and the communities that the children come from if the kids started wearing western clothes or starting listening to western music. We are just sharing skateboarding in its purest form and letting the kids make their own culture around it.

In Cambodia this is different since the country is more open and youth there are already pretty exposed to western culture. They end up finding a lot of skate videos online to learn from, though they’re definitely developing their own style too.


Have you seen the influence of the Pro skaters that have come to Skateistan play a large impact on the children? Not only in terms of actual skating and tricks, but attitude, personality, etc. ?

We’ve had a few different pros and ams visit the projects, including the Visual Travelling crew last year from Europe, Kenny Reed (three times to Afghanistan, once in Cambodia), Cairo Foster, Maysam Faraj, and Louisa Menke. During these trips the pros have become role models to the skateboarders in Afghanistan and the visits are still remembered by all the kids.
Something that was interesting when I came on this trip to the US is that our skate teacher Merza in Kabul told me before leaving that I should say hi to Cairo – obviously he had a big impact on Merza because it was 2009 when Cairo visited, so it’s now four years later. Definitely in terms of personality Cairo was a big influence on the kids, and they still always talk about him. He was just really good with the kids, he had a positive attitude, was really kind, and had patience. He also had a sense of humor and this helped him connect with the kids really well.

I think on that same trip in 2009 it was also really important for Louisa to be there because the Afghan girls saw for the first time that a girl could also be a really good skateboarder, which inspired them to push themselves.

Last summer when the Visual Traveling guys came through on their Central Asia trip it was cool to see again how much skateboarding is the universal language. One of guys who came to the Kabul park to do a little demo was Gosha Konyshev from Russia. It was funny that language didn’t need to be a barrier. Gosha didn’t really talk that much, maybe because his English wasn’t super strong at the time, but him and the Afghan kids were able to connect well without sharing the same language, and that was cool.

Due to our programming, skateboarding is now the biggest female sport in Afghanistan. It has more female participants than any other sport.

Sometimes the skateboarding lifestyle seen in magazines and videos isn't always the most tame and some times offensive to some. Is it something you have to worry about with the children and exposing it to their culture?


As mentioned before, we have to be careful about what we show the kids from western culture. Firstly, because of the cultural context, but also because we want the kids to see skating as an alternative to getting into drugs or other negative stuff. It’s an escape from a life that is already pretty rough to begin with, for a lot of them.

But even though skateboarding can have a bad reputation sometimes, what Skateistan does is equally part of the skateboarding lifestyle, and shows skateboarders and skateboarding can be lots of things at once. It’s good to be open-minded about things and not close yourself off. The kids we work with are creating their own skateboard culture, and this is a really positive thing for people in the US and other countries to see. When they see a kid wearing a shalwar camise on a skateboard, they might usually associate those clothes with being a terrorist, but then they are seeing that actually it’s just a kid like them. Showing the humanity of Afghan kids simply by having a skateboard in the picture is a powerful cultural bridge.

For those that don't know what is the attitude towards females getting an education in Afghanistan? It seems that the level of female participation in skateboarding and your schools is very high? Was it an initial goal of yours to give them the opportunity? Are there many other options for females in terms of education elsewhere in Kabul?


A lot of people in Afghanistan don’t believe in girls being educated and less than 20% of girls know how to read and write. I think that educating girls is the biggest priority in Afghanistan so Skateistan works hard to make this happen. Due to our programming, skateboarding is now the biggest female sport in Afghanistan. It has more female participants than any other sport. Overall we have 50% female participation in Skateistan’s activities and 50% of our staff are women. There are not many other interesting, accessible and safe opportunities for girls, so if they are able to come to our classes or work with us they are usually pretty stoked to be involved.

Does the role females’ play in Skateistan schools cause any tension in comparison to the cultural norms?

Some people don’t get it but we do what we can to explain things to such people. Hopefully through seeing the brave females involved in running our programs and the enthusiasm that the female students have, other girls are inspired to be brave and fight for their education. We just try to make our programs as fun as possible. Then the students do the hard work to convince their parents to be involved, with support from our local staff. We would never have as much success as the kids at convincing a parent to let them back into our program since just like parents anywhere, most of them want their kids to be happy.

From the beginning it seems a lot of the kids involved in the program go on to help out and work for Skateistan? Have any of them gone on to help and travel out side of Afghanistan?

Overall we have 50% female participation in Skateistan’s activities and 50% of our staff are women.

Over the years a few Skateistan students have gone abroad, either to study, attend events, or sometimes just skate. Some of the Afghan girls did a trip to a youth event in Italy in 2011, including Fazila, who used to work in the streets, so that was super exciting. Others are now studying in the US or the UK, and represent us at local skate events and fundraisers. Last year we helped arranged for four young Skateistan girls to go to the US for six weeks of medical treatment, since they had been seriously injured in a suicide attack at a religious celebration in 2011.

In April we sent two of our longest-involved students-turned-staff, Merza (20) and Noorzai (18), to Dubai and Abu Dhabi where they met up with the DC Europe team. This was the first time they’d gone anywhere except Pakistan, the first time for Noorzai on a plane, the first time skating an outdoor skatepark, and the first time they’d seen the ocean, which they surfed. Overall their minds were pretty blown, and the DC guys and Brad Kirr at the Tashkeel ramp were super cool. I think it was definitely a dream trip for them.

Most recently our Kabul manager Abdul, who started with us as a volunteer in 2009, got invited by the UN to a conference on ‘sport for development’ in South Korea. He met the top UN guy Ban Ki-Moon and learned tons of stuff that he’s going to share with everyone back in Kabul.

During your work through Skateistan I'm sure there has been quite a few success stories among the children? Do you have anyone that really sticks out and you're exceptionally proud of what they've gone on to accomplish? 

In the first couple years she was actually coming to Skateistan without her parents knowing, since they needed her to work all day to help with rent and food for a family of 12 people.

I’m the most proud of all of the kids who have gone from being students to teachers in both Afghanistan and Cambodia. There’s been dozens of them since 2007, and quite a few are even taking on management roles now at Skateistan, which I never would have imagined. I think this kind of progress is especially amazing for the Afghan girls. One of the girls that works with us now in Kabul is Hanifa, who’s 14 years old. She first joined as a student when she was 10 or 11, and was this little tomboy who worked in the streets selling tea, along with her younger sister Shogufa. In the first couple years she was actually coming to Skateistan without her parents knowing, since they needed her to work all day to help with rent and food for a family of 12 people. She was working so much that she ended up with a really low education, but almost always came for skating. After awhile she became a volunteer teacher and was a really good instructor, with other kids looking up to her. That made her really proud and was something she could succeed at when there were other things she struggled with. Over the years lots of other girls she knew dropped out of Skateistan because they were working and were pressured by their parents to work. But Hanifa kept coming to Skateistan because she loved skating, and in 2012 started getting paid to teach, which means she doesn’t have to work outside anymore and is able to be in a safe place. She’s really into skating mini, especially frontside tricks, like 50-50s and frontside rocks.


For any skater it has most likely changed their lives one way or another, do you imagine if it wasn't for skateboarding you would have ended up in Afghanistan in your life and going onto to work in non-profit organization.

I might’ve ended up in Afghanistan but there’s no way that I would have come up with a project that is as creative and interesting as Skateistan. I would be a much more boring person if it wasn’t for skateboarding. That’s also a driver of the success of Skateistan – to do it successfully requires a real passion for what you’re doing. Miki Vucovich first told me about this idea of the “skateboarder’s advantage”, where you fail over and over so many times before eventually landing a trick, and it makes total sense to me. The key traits that skateboarder’s have is that they’re persistent and they’re creative. Those are great things for living your life better.

Any last things you would like people to know, or take away from learning about Skateistan?

If you have a big idea or dream don’t let other people convince you it’s silly or it won’t work. Follow your intuition, and whenever possible, try to make the world a slightly better place.

If you want to see how you can get involved with Skateistan check out our website www.skateistan.org or find us on Instagram and Facebook.

Afghanistan photo Slide Show

(click photo below to view slideshow)