Oliver Percovich has to be one of the most purposeful people I was lucky enough to have befriended. It is the type of eccentric air that surrounds the human beings who have impacted the world in such a unique and innovative way that surrounds him. The manner in which he explains the beginning of the days creating Skateistan could bring tears of joy to just about anyone. And even greater, the empire of “Citizens of Skateistan” which has grown immensely since 2008. Beyond him is an empire of leaders and followers, ranging from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Phnom Pehn in Cambodia, to Johannesburg in South Africa, ultimately superseding, breaking down, and disposing of the idea of a “criteria”. Skateistan celebrates each and every background and perfectly embodies what, in a perfect world, we would label as Equality.
This year, Skateistan celebrates its 10 year anniversary, so I thought it befitting to ask 10 questions about Skateistan from its very begging to the very present. ((DISCLAIMER, you’ll hear the word, “Skateistan” a lot))
Where was your life headed before Skateistan?
Ummm… I didn’t really have that much direction. I was traveling around a lot so I lived in Australia up until 2006, and then I moved overseas and I was just looking for a job. But I think deep within me, I wanted to find a job that really meant something to me. Whatever I worked on, I worked very, very hard at. But, because I was putting so much into it, I didn’t want to work on something I didn’t really believe in. So I’d work on something for a while, and then I’d do something else. I never really stuck at anything for a very long period of time. So I was looking for something that meant something to me. I got my first skateboard when I was 5 years old and it just blew my mind and changed my life. So when I’d seen that same expression on the children’s faces in Afghanistan, I’d connected to it. And at that point, it didn’t really matter what anyone else had told me about it being too dangerous to be there, or, that it was something really strange to do. It totally made sense to me. So, the short answer would be, I was looking for something that made sense to me, and I found it in Skateistan.
What was the inspiration behind Skateistan?
It was really a moment when I was running these little skateboard sessions in an empty fountain in Kabul. I ran sessions for both boys and girls, but I’d give the girls more time than the boys. So, the girls would get 15 minutes, whereas the boys would get 5 minutes to skate. And so, it really created this space where the girls could come, and they could really be good at it. And then I ran competitions, and the girls became better than the boys, and I just thought it was really hilarious because, girls didn’t ride bicycles, or they didn’t play cricket or they didn’t do any of these other things. They were always just in the background not doing anything because they didn’t have options to do it or, society told them, “you’re not allowed to ride a bike, you’re not allowed to drive a car, you’re not allowed to do this or that”. So, because I was concentrating on the girls, it grew into the collective of like, I think it was like 25 girls out of 70 children total. And the crucial moment, after a particular girl session, they were all so happy after skateboarding that they all held hands, in a ring, and started singing and dancing around the fountain. And I was just…totally gobsmacked. I was just sitting there like, Woah, this is so beautiful. They’re just so happy that they can express themselves and have this little bit of freedom in their lives. And what was really key there was that these children came from very different backgrounds. Some were Hazara, some were Tajik, some were Pashtos, some were Uzbek, some were Sunni Muslim, others were Shia. And their communities were saying, “hate these people”, and yet, when they came together skateboarding, they’re all one, dancing and singing together. When I saw that, that was my wish for Afghanistan as a whole. And that’s what really made me just go, alright. I have to commit everything to this, I’ve gotta grow this. Because if I’ve been able to bring these children from all these different backgrounds, imagine if we made this bigger?
When did you begin to realize your idea was being manifested into reality?
I guess what I just talked about was..one moment, in a way. In terms of that community being built up. But then, I guess, the second part was having land and building a space where that would be just for the children. I’d been promised land lots of times by lots of different people, and as soon as they realized I didn’t have any money, they just took the land away again, even though they’d promised it to me for free. They were still looking for some sort of pay off and I just didn’t have money to do that. But when I’d gotten land from the National Olympic Committee, and I’d gotten a building company to agree to do it for me under cost price, and I found some donors to then pay for the construction, and we built the first school in Afghanistan and it was like, real. Like, this isn’t going away anytime soon, you know? We’d gotten the community and now we’ve got the school and now we have to make it a success. Now there’s no turning back.
Well, I didn’t go to Afghanistan with the idea of starting a non-profit, I went there looking for a job. So, Skateistan simply evolved. It grew very organically. Very out of the ground. And when I was trying to leave, the street working children wouldn’t actually let me leave. They were just, like, hanging onto my skateboard so I was like, wow. They really want that. They wanna grow that. So the way that skate works it that other sports weren’t accessible by girls. As soon as a girl wanted to play soccer she was told that was a sport for boys. As soon as she wanted to ride a bike or fly a kite or as soon as she wants to do virtually anything in Afghan society she was told that she couldn’t. And with skateboarding, we had a loophole because they hadn’t actually seen a skateboard before, so there were no societal rules about it being appropriate or inappropriate. And by giving the girls more opportunities to skate, the girls got better than the boys. And when everybody saw that, they thought, “Oh, that might be the sport for girls!”.
I simply followed my girlfriend at the time to Afghanistan. She was applying for different jobs in international development and we were living in Morocco at the time, in Rabat, and there was the job that came up in Afghanistan. And I really encouraged her to apply for it because… basically I really wanted to go to Afghanistan [laughs]. So she got the job and I followed her there. But I think the first time Afghanistan sort of entered into my conscious was when I just remember reading a news article, maybe it was in Time magazine, about the Taliban breaking peoples’ radios and stopping them from playing soccer and I just thought…wow, like, I understand you want a different way of living but…to live without being able to express yourself? That really made me wonder. I didn’t make any decision on whether it was right or wrong, it just caught me by surprise and it stuck with me. I wondered, What was this place? Whats going on there? Who are these people? And I’d heard a lot about the Khyber Pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan and I was just really intrigued. So once it was in my head, actually going there was a really exciting moment.
What is the purpose of Skateistan?
I think I can pull from my motivations. My first motivation was that I was really shocked by how little females take a roll in Afghan society and that was a little bit of a shock to my system. And when I had the ability to share something that I loved with these children, especially the street working children, and then girls were taking part, that was something that was very exciting for me. Even when out of all skateboarders globally, probably only 5 to 10 percent are girls anyway. So it was sort of like girls skateboarding, especially in Afghanistan…that was really crazy to me. And just how badly the international community was kind of “stuffing up” in Afghanistan. They weren’t concentrating on the most important demographic. Like, half of the population is under 15, and they weren’t concentrating on them at all. And these foreign “experts” didn’t really understand Afghanistan. They didn’t understand the context at all. So they were coming in with all these solutions that didn’t really work for the country at all. And so it needed to be Afghans themselves to solve those problems. But for them to solve these problems they needed critical thinking skills. They needed to have experience and to educate themselves on how to solve these quite intractable, complex problems. The Afghan schooling system is very much based on rote learning, where they just copy whatever the teacher is saying without actually thinking about what it is. And you’re not gonna solve the hardest problems in the world by doing it, and you’re also not gonna solve any problems in Afghanistan by bringing in some international that doesn’t actually understand anything about the country. So, for me, it was like, “how can I give these children a better chance at an education? How can I create a hub where they can learn the things that they’re really interested in? And how can I help them create the country that they’re gonna inherit?”. So I think that they’re both passions of mine. Skateboarding and education and each child reaching their potential. So where I was given then the opportunity to act on that, to do something and to build a school that had those elements to it was pretty exciting.
Do you feel you have accomplished a lot through Skateistan? If so, how?
I think we’ve accomplished a lot. Because we’ve built up a momentum that isn’t gonna go away. I could leave Skateistan and it would keep on going. And so I think in that way a lot has been achieved. But there’s so much more. I mean, this is just a small part of what I’ve done so far and I wanna do so much more. And I think everybody else that’s part of Skateistan wants to achieve so much more. I’m very proud that skateboarding is the larger sport for girls in Afghanistan. I’m very proud that the community of supporters is growing worldwide, and when people support Skateistan, they learn to look at other people at eye level. Instead of it being a transaction where you’re the donor, and you feel better than the person that you’re helping. What we’re really trying to do is, like, get the average kid in America to see another kid in Afghanistan or Cambodia or South Africa or anywhere else in the world that we might go and work, and say, “I’m exactly like that person. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse. Were the same”. And I think that’s another aspect of what Skateistan can share and achieve. To get people to look at each other, eye to eye, and for there not be an unequal power dynamic. Its when, you know, people from poorer countries or people from richer countries both come to realize that each has an intrinsic worth that we should acknowledge and we should celebrate.
What are the greatest challenges with keeping Skateistan active and alive?
I mean, in Afghanistan definitely, the security situation has been getting a lot worse over the last three years. And just…the fact that our drivers drive through Kabul traffic where there was an attack yesterday, a really large attack, and they have to navigate through these streets to get the children to Skateistan. And just to do everyday activities is sometimes very, very challenging. And we wanna grow and do more things, so we need to bring in more money and we’ve gotta get new donors and we’ve gotta keep…what we’ve built up. We’ve gotta keep that going. So being able to fundraise is a big part of it. And at the moment we’re really dependent on money from governments, including the U.S. government. And I’m not really happy about that. I’d much, much rather not receive money from governments because I don’t agree with what they’re doing. But this is a big chunk of money to replace. So we’ve got a big job in trying to get people to support. And that’s what we wanna do for Citizens of Skateistan, where people pay $10 a month, and that money helps us to keep on going.
Where do you envision Skateistan in the next 10 years?
I’d like to see Skateistan on all of the continents of the world! I’d like to see Skateistan in, at least, 100 locations with tens of thousands of students apart of our program. I’d like to see students at the highest levels of the organization. Like in Afghanistan, 70% of our staff are former students, and I’d like them to move into higher international positions. And I’d like to see within the next 10 years – you never know, but, id be very excited by a female global leader of a country coming from Skateistan. That’d be a wish of mine.
Besides the Skateistan movement being world-renowned and extremely innovative, what is a message that you feel would resonate with young people who aspire to accomplish such things as yourself?
Think about what you’re passionate about and follow it. Because everybody has a unique something to offer. And to help others with. And to inspire others with. Look into yourself and do what you can to bring that out. Work on what your gift is and go out there and do it. If you’re passionate about something, you can definitely make it successful and make the world a better place.
You can learn more about Skateistan here. Also, to conclude this most in-depth and undoubtedly inspiring Q&A, do yourself a favor and watch the short documentary about Skateistan and each of its establishments in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa. I guarantee you that it is the best video you’ve seen all year and it’s merely February.