In an ancient country of conflict, skateboarding is a new land of opportunity.

The brainchild of keen skater Oliver Percovich, Skateistan has raced past 1,000 members from some of the world's most troubled communities and is aiming for double that number by the end of 2016. The surprise is the education and personal development that you wouldn't normally expect from skateboarding.

It all started with Percovich skating a disused fountain in Kabul, as he followed his girlfriend to Afghanistan in 2007. The local children were fascinated with something they had never seen before and he returned with a few boards and big ideas.

"Sport is a great stepping stone but not the be all and end all of changing the country. It's more of a vehicle."


He saw that skating could help build trust among different ethnicities and communities. "I was fairly surprised people were listening to my crazy ideas," he admits.

Through unstoppable persistence and enthusiasm, Percovich gathered equipment, sponsorship and aid funding to take his favourite pastime into a country where the poor and street kids, especially girls, have little or no schooling and female sport is very rare.

Strict cultural norms even prevent girls from riding bicycles, so skating has quickly become the number one sport for them. "We found there was this loophole."

Skateboarding is such a new activity, there haven't been any cultural rules about it. Because of a few brave girls, as soon as it was allowed by some parents, others joined."

Half of the skaters are female and the indoor skate facilities allow culturally acceptable segregation. Half of the staff too, in a country where there is little employment for women.

"I started doing it on an incredibly small scale, ten to fifteen kids. For me at least, it was a microcosm of what needed to happen in the country."

A social scientist by trade, he had seen the failures of top down funding in communities in his Australian homeland.

"One of the girls was fighting for her right to stay in school." Fazila was the second best student in class even though working as a street seller. Skateistan helped her to stay in the classroom by making her a paid instructor.


"This was not a sustainable solution, we couldn't just pay kids to go to school. So we decided to create our own school, based around creative learning." It is not a replacement for a traditional classroom, but for many girls it is a stepping stone back into the education system.

Skateistan has added another facility in Afghanistan, plus Cambodia and the latest in South Africa, but is not planning any facilities in Auckland any time soon.

However there is a Kiwi connection. Originally from Wellington, Claire Dugan moved to Germany five years ago and searched for an accountancy job. Skateistan were looking for someone to work in their Berlin HQ sorting out their increasingly complex finances. For Dugan it was "too interesting an opportunity to pass up."

Dugan has become such a lynchpin of the tiny organisation, from establishing the financial controls to training women as local book keepers, that last year she was made Deputy Executive Director.

"It's such an exciting fun environment. Oliver is totally uncompromising about what he wants the organisation to achieve," Claire says.

Percovich's eye is back on the more troubled areas of the Middle East, with a plan for add five sites over next few years. Never short of ideas to help the organisation, fundraising now includes allowing individuals to donate funds and in return describe themselves as a 'citizen of Skateistan'.


While the kids skate their way to a better life.