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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.
She has been skating for a year and would like to come every day, she says, shrugging off grazes on her hands from tumbles.
So far Skateistan have won donations of $650,000, around two thirds of which went toward the 1,800 sq m (19,380 sq ft) indoor arena.
The head of the Afghan Olympic Committee, which has donated the land for the park and is providing water, power and security, officially opened the indoor park and launched an enrolment drive. An outdoor area will follow.
"We managed to bring together about 200 street children, this sport is not only entertainment for them, it is also giving them hope for their future," said AOC head Mohammad Zahir Aghbar.
"I am working hard to expand this process, not only in the capital but further out, in the provinces also."
The children he hopes to help are those like 11-year-old Fazila, who used to sell chewing gum on the street, but was allowed to go to school and skate classes after Skateistan arranged to pay her parents the $1 a day she used to earn.
"I want to be able to jump like teacher Ollie. I can do a little already," she said with a shy grin, before wheeling off to tackle the two quarter ramps that make up the "Afghan gap" in her traditional headscarf and shalwar kameez, beside the children of Afghanistan's elite.
Editing by Alex Richardson