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Diversion from desolation

A baker from Australia helps troubled Afghan youth find solace in skateboarding.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2009 16:23 IST
Adam B. Ellick

IT LOOKED like an ordinary neighborhood playground: six children tumbling off their skateboards to the tune of laughter. But only hours before, just 20 yards away, the body of a suicide car bomber was sprawled beside a glistening pool of blood.

Afghan youth have learned to recover almost instantly from such routine violence. One person determined to inject some normalcy into their lives is Oliver Percovich. A 34-year-old from Melbourne, Australia, he plans to open this country’s first skateboarding school, Skateistan, this spring.

He sees sport as a way to woo students into after-school activities like English and computer classes, which are otherwise reserved for the elite.

“Teenagers are trying to dissociate from old mentalities, and I’m their servant,” Percovich said. “If they weren’t interested, I would’ve left a long time ago.”

Now, when he pulls his motorcycle into a residential courtyard here, a dozen youngsters pounce before it comes to a stop, yanking six chipped skateboards with fading paint off the back. The children, most participating in a sport for the first time in their war-hardened lives, do not want to waste any time.

Their skateboard park is a decrepit Soviet-style concrete fountain with deep fissures.

The tangle of novice skaters resembles bumper cars more than X Games. But Percovich has raised the money needed to build an 8,600-square-foot bubble to house the nonprofit Skateistan complex, and the Kabul Parks Authority has tentatively donated land. He is still waiting for official permission to begin the project. And since a spate of kidnappings and the car bombing in late November, he has reduced his daily sessions at the fountain.

Among those who look forward to his visits is Maro, an elfin 9-year-old girl who was terrified of skateboarding at first. “It gives me courage, and once I start skating, I completely forget about my fears,” she said.

All the children spoke through an interpreter.

But for Hadisa, a 10-year-old girl from a conservative family, skateboarding has not been accepted. She said two older brothers beat her with wires for skating with poorer children in September. Several friends said they had seen blood flowing from her leg.

“I'm not upset with my brothers for beating me," Hadisa whispered on a recent day when she did not skate because her oldest brother was nearby. “They have the right.”

But some girls cannot skate enough because their window for participation is short. When Afghan girls reach puberty, they must be veiled and can no longer associate with men outside the family. Percovich said his indoor skate park could be part of the solution, with boys and girls in separate classes.

“If my family doesn’t let me skate when I grow up, then I have to respect my family,” Maro said.

But Percovich is determined to overcome the obstacles. He arrived here rather impulsively in early 2007 because his girlfriend at the time had taken a job in Kabul. He gave up his bakery business, stuffed some clothes — and his skateboards — into a bag and left Australia.

Unable to find work, Percovich did what he has done since he was 6. He rode his skateboard, undaunted by the military convoys, pushcarts, donkeys, a suffocating film of dust and occasional car bombings.

“Whenever I turned up, kids gathered around and asked, ‘What is that?’” he said, referring to his skateboard.

“They'd ask to have a go, and I realized quite fast it's an excellent way to interact with youth.”

(The New York Times)

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