Afghanistan's first skatepark mixes rich and poor

Wed Dec 30, 2009 11:54am EST
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By Emma Graham-Harrison

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's first skateboarding park and school opened in Kabul on Tuesday with a boarding showdown between dozens of youngsters -- ranging from ministers' children to streetkids -- that it aims to bring together.

"Skateistan" started two years ago in a dried-up fountain in the heart of the Afghan capital, when two Australians with three skateboards started teaching a small group of fascinated kids.

Now dozens of boys and girls from across all social classes can mix in a giant indoor park that looks like a cross between a military hangar and an urban hangout, festooned with the names of fashionable skating brands that have sponsored the park.

Classes are free, and at the back of the skating section are neat changing areas and classrooms where children can study everything from basic literacy to advanced computing when they put down their boards and take off their helmets.

"A year ago this was empty land, there were just dogs here," said Fraidoon Ilham, who helps write speeches for President Hamid Karzai as his day job but also helps Skateistan sort through the legal and government pitfalls of operating in Afghanistan.

One of the world's poorest and most conservative countries seems a strange place to set up a skateboarding school, but the founders say it has proved a remarkably successful way to reach out to marginalized children, particularly girls.

Sports such as football are seen as men's activities, but skateboarding is novel enough to be open to women.

"I want to be a professional skateboarder in future like my teacher, and help other children learn how to skate," said 10-year-old Mahro, a star student who seems undaunted by either traditional ideas about women or the steepest ramps in the park.   Continued...

<p>Afghan children hold their skateboards as they wait in line to enter the skateboarding park in Kabul December 29, 2009. REUTERS/Marko Djurica</p>