Begun in 2007 as a community-based sports development project in Kabul, Afghanistan, the independent, non-governmental organization Skateistan uses skateboarding to connect young people who are facing challenging circumstances with opportunities to engage in educational programs, develop leadership skills, and form relationships that cross socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic boundaries. Skateistan, which completed the construction of its Kabul skate park and educational center in 2009, has since expanded the organization to include a second facility in Mazar-e-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan, as well as programs in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Johannesburg, South Africa. Each week, over 1,200 young people between the ages of 5 and 18 learn in the safe, all-inclusive environments of Skateistan’s skate parks and classrooms.
As the first international aid organization to assist youth by pairing skateboarding lessons with academic instruction, Skateistan envisions skateboarding as a magnet that draws young people in need into long-term involvement in its correlated educational programs. From that foundation, participants are able to form stable peer support networks and acquire the confidence, knowledge, and life skills necessary to take an active role in society. Skateistan strives to bring together children from diverse backgrounds and to foster cross-cultural bonding, while also emphasizing the empowerment of marginalized populations. More than 60% of its students are from families with low incomes and over 50% work on the street. In addition, there are many students with disabilities.
Youth Development in Afghanistan
With programs in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, Skateistan seeks to address the critical need for youth development in a country where those under the age of 16 comprise half of the overall population and those under 25 represent 68% of residents. Skateistan’s focus on reaching children who have been cut off from educational experiences due to economic hardship is particularly relevant in Afghanistan, where over 20% of children support themselves or their families by working, often toiling in the street.
For nearly a decade, Skateistan has served more than 2,000 young Afghans, and it currently provides instruction for close to 400 participants every week at its two centers. Skateistan promotes the ownership and design of its programs by beneficiaries and works to maintain equality and cooperation among participants, volunteers, and staff members. Central to Skateistan’s work in Afghanistan are its three primary, integrated programs: Skate and Create, Back to School, and Youth Leadership.
Combining Skateboarding and Creative Education
At its locations in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, Skateistan has built the two largest indoor sports centers in Afghanistan alongside dedicated educational facilities. Through Skate and Create, students receive weekly, organized skateboarding lessons in conjunction with educational courses grounded in the arts. The indoor skate parks provide a safe, private arena in which all young Afghans are equally welcome to express their creativity and strengthen their personal character through athletic activities. Drawn in by the appeal of skateboarding, children continue to attend Skateistan for classes where they use the fine arts and multimedia to examine a broad array of topics. The students determine the content of their curriculum and study subjects such as environmental health, foreign cultures, storytelling, and geography, among others.
Skate and Create classes are structured to accommodate the needs of learners of all levels of education and literacy within a setting in which young people can nurture relationships that transcend deep-seated social and economic divisions. In order to provide students with a means to resolve local and global issues, exercises are designed to help children develop their abilities in critical thinking, self-expression, and problem solving. Students also acquire an expanded world view by sharing multimedia and art projects with peers from other countries.
Helping Afghan Youth Enroll in School
Upon the opening of its Kabul location in 2009, Skateistan initiated the Back to School (BTS) program to help young Afghans who are not attending school prepare to enroll or re-enroll in the public education system. BTS particularly aims to reach children who have left school in order to work and make money to meet the needs of their families.
Designed as a one-year intensive learning program, BTS is divided into three four-month semesters, each of which encompass a curriculum equivalent to one grade of public school. Students receive instruction from experienced teachers for two hours a day, five days a week. They learn a fundamental set of subjects that include Dari reading and writing, mathematics, calligraphy, art, religious studies, and life skills.
After students complete one year in BTS, Skateistan helps them to prepare to pass examinations for admittance to a government-operated school. Most students enroll in public school at the third or fourth grade level, and Skateistan provides the requisite school materials and uniforms. A Student Support Officer helps each BTS alumnus with their transition, and consultations are conducted with students and their families throughout their first year in school.
Preparing Young People to Lead
In accordance with Skateistan’s commitment to beneficiary ownership, the Youth Leadership initiative provides older participants with the opportunity to work with Skateistan in volunteer or staff positions and contribute to the creation of its programs. Youth leaders serve as role models for their peers by facilitating weekly skate sessions, assisting with classroom instruction, or participating on the Student Council. Entrusted with these duties, youth leaders develop self-esteem and a sense of accountability, traits that are vital for young Afghans to effect positive change in their communities.
Through their involvement in special workshops on arts, multimedia, and sports, youth leaders broaden their range of skills. Individuals on the Student Council learn to resolve organizational problems, present their ideas to a group, and consider the interests of their peers. Youth leaders also engage in discourse with adults and young people from around the world as speakers and participants at events such as the Global Issues Network Conference, the UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace Conference, and TEDxKabul.