Oliver Percovich is the founder and executive director of Skateistan, a nonprofit organization that uses skateboarding as a means of empowering youth and promoting education in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa.
Percovich was born in Australia and grew up skateboarding in the streets of Melbourne. In 2007, he moved to Kabul, Afghanistan. He decided to turn his passion for skateboarding into a way to make a difference in the lives of young people. In 2009, Percovich founded Skateistan, which initially operated out of a small skatepark in Kabul. The organization quickly gained popularity and expanded to include a school that provides free education to children in grades 1 through 9. Skateistan now providing skateboarding and educational programming to over 4,000 young people each week.
Percovich has received numerous awards including the World Skateboarding Federation’s Humanitarian Award and the Australian Youth Mentorship Award. He has also been recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader. Percovich is also a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Commission and a board member of the Tony Hawk Foundation, which supports the creation of public skateparks in underserved communities around the world.
Tune in to find out about how Percovich started Skateistan, how they have been dealing with the Taliban Government, plans for the organisation and how you can support.
Oli Russell-Cowan: How did it all begin?
Oliver Percovich: There were some Afghan young young men that were studying film and photography at a little nonprofit that was set up to do Media Studies. These kids were fascinated by the skateboard. So we went out and would skateboard at the local school. Then other kids would see it and jump on the skateboard to try it out.
What was really interesting to me was the fact that girls would also get on a skateboard. I didn’t see girls doing other sports. I was like, wow, we can actually get girls on skateboards. It works. They were strict working kids that were really just rough and ready to do anything and didn’t really care about what other people thought or what they were supposed to do or not.
That sparked some ideas. I didn’t see women driving cars anywhere in the city. There’s no women drivers, there’s no women riding bicycles. There’s no girls flying kites. There’s no girls playing cricket. All of these activities are all just things for men, or the things that boys or men could do that girls and women were not really supposed to.
Skateboarding being brand new I realise that maybe this is a little bit of a loophole. There’s been no societal rules. There’s nobody saying to their daughters ‘hey, you’re not supposed to skateboard.’
I saw it as an interesting opportunity. When the sessions became more formalised, which was actually a whole year later. So that was then first in 2008.
In September 2007, I left Afghanistan. I went to India and I did a big motorcycle trip. I had a pretty bad motorcycle accident there. When a cow walked onto the road. I had to swerve and not hit the cow. I completely smashed my shoulder. I went back to Australia for surgery. Then I was working out how to get back to Afghanistan again. Once my shoulder was better I worked on a building site as a labourer to get a bit of money together. Then my mum lent me $2,000.
I went back to Afghanistan in 2008 by myself, with more skateboards and a plan to start to do sessions. We found a really cool place to skate that reminded me a lot of a place that I used to skateboard in Melbourne, which was the hat factory. This fish pond that was empty and was just amazing. I think it was built in the 30s or 40s. Caballero and Lance Mountain had been there and skated. That was my spot as a teenager to go.
So we found this empty fountain in Kabul that reminded me so much of the hat factory because it had these banks and then a little curve on the top of the bank. I can get to bring all my hat factory tricks back to this little to this fountain.
I started to run sessions there. We prioritised the girls. The great thing about the fountain was it was harder for the kids to run off with the skateboards.
Whenever I was running skateboard sessions at other places, inevitably, at some point, some kid would try to do a runner. I always got the skateboard back. Scanning the area, trying to keep these crazy sessions happening when we found the fountain. It was a controlled space. I simply gave the girls double the time of the boys. It was 10 minutes for girls to skate five minutes for the boys to skate, 10 minutes for the girls to skate, and just kept on doing it like this.
The girls got more time to skateboard they got better than the boys. That was exciting. I was like, ‘what can evolve out of this.’
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