Welcome to Skateistan
You could feel the excitement in the gymnasium and outside in the grounds of the Kabul Olympic compound on a sunny Thursday morning as more than 200 boys and girls gathered to collect skateboards and take part in Go Skateboarding day.
This is their once-a-year opportunity to skateboard on the streets of Kabul. Well, around part of a block in Kabul, but still a novelty here.
The children waited patiently as they were assigned helmets, shoes and a skateboard. There weren't enough for everyone, so in some cases two or three children shared a board. They lined up, hopping with excitement, then marched to the gate of the compound.
A half dozen police officers halted traffic as the children spilled onto the street. Some kids whizzed down the road, riding their skateboards the traditional way. Others, less confident sat or stood while their friends pushed them along. Laughter and whoops of joy accompanied the procession, as well as flags and a banner bearing the name Skateistan.
The organisation was started in 2007 by Australian Oliver Percovich and a few of his friends. They came to Afghanistan with three skateboards and were besieged by Afghan children who wanted to learn.
Four years later, the success is obvious. There's an indoor skateboard park in Kabul where 400 children a week come to skate and attend classes like photography, filmmaking and puppetry. Percovich explained it's about helping the kids express themselves.
"Anything that can get a story out, that can develop voice for the children anything that can get the idea of what it's like to be a kid in Afghanistan in 2012 out to the rest of the world," he says.
Skateistan's aims are to promote equality and trust, to use the sport as a vehicle for empowerment.
Thirteen-year old Zurhana Stanekzai says it's working for her.
"It’s hard to be a girl in Afghanistan, most people think that girls should be in their homes, just cooking, working at home. Skateistan is a really great opportunity for us," she says.
After three years, Stanekzai is one of the more experienced riders and won her own skateboard in a competition last year. She says when she uses it around her neighbourhood, she gets strange looks, but doesn't care.
"It's kind of freedom, we feel free, we feel like we are equal with everybody else," she says.
Mohammed Mirbadzai says that's even more true for him. His leg muscles were damaged in a childhood vaccination. One leg is shorter than the other and he walks with a pronounced limp. He skateboards sitting down, but takes the ramps, and the falls, like anyone else.
"Before I came here, I was very unhappy," he says. "Because I was not able to go out. Since I came here saw skateboarding and found a class for the disabled, I am very happy, I really enjoy it."
Percovich says that egalitarian spirit is the point of the sport.
"Skateboarders don't look at color, they don't look at religion, they don't want any boundaries," he explains. "Everything that's important is about being a skateboarder and what sort of tricks you can do and sharing and having a good time."
There is no question that the kids in Kabul are having a ball. Percovich is working to build the organisation. He has deals with manufacturers and shoe companies that produce skateboard products using the Skateistan name. The organisation gets a share of the profits.
There is already another Skateistan in Cambodia. And in the autumn of 2012, he plans to expand in Afghanistan. A new skate park, twice as big as the one in Kabul, is scheduled to open in the northern city of Mazar–e-Sharif.
Percovich says none of his current Afghan skateboarders is ready for international competition. To improve, he says they would need to train on bigger ramps. But he has high hopes for the future.
"We've definitely got a lot of girls skateboarding and they're really good and they started at a really young age. So perhaps after five or ten years we will actually have some [international competitors], maybe even a female champion," he says.
He calls the Afghan skateboarders fearless. That's clear on the ramps of the gym, where they flip their boards, make sharp turns, and leap in the air.
But as they took to Kabul's bumpy streets, most evident was their joy at learning something new, at finding independence and certainty, if only for a little while.