Selling Gum and Skateboarding in Kabul

SBC skateistan skateboarding kabulDuring the last five years working at Skateistan I was asked a couple times to write stories for external media, and even a column for the Huffington Post. Unfortunately between living in somewhat of a warzone and growing professional responsibilities I didn’t manage to fit this in. An exception however is the article below, which I wrote for Canada’s primary skateboard magazine, SBC. In 2011/2012 I also managed production on a 320 page book, from which I’ll post some excerpts from that here at a later date.

Selling Gum and Skateboarding in Kabul
Female shredders on the front lines for hope in Afghanistan
(Published July 2010)

The first time I met 12-year-old Fazila was when we pulled into a gas station one evening in Kabul. She was there begging for money, as she does almost every day in some part of the city or other. I had arrived in Afghanistan a week earlier to volunteer and teach at an NGO called Skateistan, and the last I’d heard of this girl Fazila was that her father had forced her to stop skateboarding (again) because she was supposed to be out begging.

Skateistan’s a school centered around the idea that skateboarding creates unique opportunities for building connections – even between youth traditionally segregated by ethnicity, language, socio-economic status and gender. Fazila got involved with Skateistan back in 2008, outshining almost everyone else during the frequent skate sessions at an empty fountain called Mekroyan. The NGO has since grown into a facility with an indoor skatepark and classrooms for students from all backgrounds to learn together.

In the Mekroyan days, though, there were a mere handful of skateboards to be shared among several dozen curious kids, many of them taking a break from selling gum or washing cars. Kabul has a war economy, and more precisely an international aid economy. Little kids can make $20 or more a day begging from ridiculously-paid aid workers and contractors in fancy SUVs, while a good monthly income for adults here is $100. Instead of attending school, kids here become breadwinners at six of seven years old.

Fazila’s family arrived in Kabul quite recently as refugees. During the Taliban regime many fled their home regions for Pakistan, and have since returned to the relatively secure, severely overpopulated city of Kabul, where haphazard mud huts dot the mountains that rise up on all sides. Fazila is endearing, softspoken, observant, and mentally tougher than you could ever imagine. She met her best friend and skate buddy, Wahila, working in the streets and the two could hardly be more different from each other. Wahila is dangerously mouthy, restless and never hesitates. What these girls have in common though is that they are fearless – in life and in skating.

While boys here face multiple barriers, it’s really the girls of Afghanistan, rich and poor, that need something like Skateistan. Females aren’t supposed to do any sports and are essentially treated as servants at home, so for a girl here to take up skateboarding is actually a little bit insane. Yet Afghanistan now has the most egalitarian male-female skateboarder ratio in the world!

That night I first met Fazila we convinced her to come by the skatepark to get a used board. We were so close to losing her. Now, only a few months later, she and Wahila are both helping regularly in the girls’ skateboard sessions. It’s never simple though. When Wahila slammed on her arm one day we had to take her for an X-ray against her will – she was nervous about not getting home in time for housework and about her father banning skateboarding if he found out she’d hurt herself. When I left for Afghanistan I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew that skateboarding had guided my own life to some unexpected, wonderful places and I didn’t see why it should be any different for a child growing up in Kabul.

The highlight of my week now is goofing around with these two girls, just seeing how stoked they are to be skating. And on the drive home afterwards, sometimes it’s really hard for me not to look at a young girl selling gum or tapping the window asking for “One dollar?” and picture Fazila or Wahila, who still spend their days in the street. Their futures are uncertain, but in a place with so few opportunities for the young, the poor and the female, I think there’s more hope for them through Skateistan than anyone could ever have imagined.


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