Morzine has a short but committed history with skateboarding. In 2015 the town got a new community skate park, one that local residents had been campaigning for and raising money to build for years. The Morzine skate park is now a space that skaters, families and children share together, so imagine our stoke levels when we discovered that Skateistan, one of the most inspiring skate-based organisations in the world, would be coming to Morzine for their annual strategy meeting.
For those not familiar with it, Skateistan is an award-winning non-profit organisation that combines skateboarding with creative education to empower children, and in particular young girls from low-income families in conflict and post-conflict zones. Its focus is on providing safe spaces where kids can learn, have fun, and express their creativity through a range of activities. Just one of Skateistan’s various initiatives is an accelerated learning programme to help kids re-enter the mainstream education system. Originally started on the streets of Kabul, Skateistan has built skate parks and educational facilities in two Afghan cities, as well as Johannesburg in South Africa and Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Plans for new projects are also underway in central Afghanistan and Jordan.
“A lot of sports were seen as boys’ activities. Girls were told, ‘you’re not allowed to play soccer, that’s an activity for boys,’ but the skateboard was unique, it was new culturally”
So how did the team from an international NGO that operates in all four corners of the world end up in Morzine? Funny story. Tom, the owner of Chalet Fourmiliere along with his wife Alex, is a long-time volunteer for Skateistan, and had promised the team an invite when he realised his dream of buying a chalet in the French Alps. “I’ve become very close with Tom and Alex and they’ve become super supporters of what we do,” Skateistan founder Oliver Percovich explained. “Tom has been offering incredible strategic advice for me and for the organisation over a number of years, he’s made really huge sacrifices and taken his holidays to fly to the other side of the world to volunteer with us.” And that ability to form relationships, develop communities and foster commitment is really what’s at the heart of Skateistan. But we’ll get to that later.
So how did it all start? Originally from Melbourne, Ollie skated since the age of five, studied chemistry and owned an organic sourdough business, among other things, before moving to Afghanistan in 2007 “I brought a skateboard with me to Afghanistan,” he explains, “and when I skateboarded in the streets, kids were really interested in what I was doing and they wanted to try the skateboard out. It was girls as well as boys and that really surprised me, because I didn’t see girls doing other sports. And I realised it was a bit of a loophole because nobody had seen skateboarding before. A lot of sports were seen as boys’ activities. Girls were told, ‘you’re not allowed to play soccer, that’s an activity for boys,’ but the skateboard was unique, it was new culturally.”
“I think young people can change the world, but they’ve got to be invested in”
And so Skateistan was born. It started out with just Ollie running small skate sessions in different locations around Kabul, but it quickly grew into something far bigger. “If it were just boys who were interested, I don’t think I would have really pushed it to that next level, but the fact that it was girls… I thought that was something very exciting.”
Ollie gave girls more time on the board than the boys and the girls quickly became better skaters. “It’s a very simple scenario – more “it was a point where I could see a future for Afghanistan” time on the board equals more practice and opportunity. And if girls aren’t given opportunity in a whole lot of different areas then boys will take that space”.
But it wasn’t just about skateboarding. While a lot of money was being put into the international development of Afghanistan at the time, barely any of it was reaching low-income kids, and over half the population were younger than 15. “I think young people can change the world, but they’ve got to be invested in,” Ollie believes. So he set about providing a fun, safe space for young people in Kabul, using skateboarding as the hook to encourage kids to learn. And it worked. In 2009 Skateistan built Afghanistan’s first ever indoor skate park, which also houses classrooms, a sports hall and a climbing wall. It’s open five days a week and holds specific girls’ days, where all-female educators and role models work with girls in a safe, culturally appropriate space. It’s one of the few places in Kabul a girl can go to ride a bike.
Today, around 50% of Skateistan’s students are female. But Skateistan doesn’t just provide a safe outlet for girls. It’s brought together young people from Afghanistan’s many different ethnic and social backgrounds. “In Afghanistan, there can often be tension between some of the different ethnic groups.” Explains Ollie. “Yet within this group they had a new shared identity, and that was as skateboarders. It didn’t really matter that they came from different backgrounds. When that happened, it was a point where I could see a future for Afghanistan.”
At the time, girls doing sport and kids of different ethnic backgrounds coming together just wasn’t happening in Afghanistan. So what was it about skateboarding that was changing things? Skateboarding provided a level playing field; boys and girls, everyone was starting from scratch. Plus, skating is accessible, it’s reasonably cheap, you can do it anywhere and as Ollie says, “Skateboarding is just really fun.” But in Afghanistan, its status as a new activity was a totally unique opportunity. “I tried to keep in the background as much as possible,” Ollie explains. “It was very important that [skating] wasn’t viewed as a new culture taking over, or threatening the culture in Afghanistan in any way, so I didn’t show any magazines or fashion or videos. I wanted a new culture to emerge for skateboarding in Afghanistan because I knew that was something that could then take root.”
“it was a point where I could see a future for Afghanistan”
As a foreigner it was important for Ollie to develop mutual respect with the kids he worked with in order to let the organisation grow organically. He shared his love of skateboarding with them, and in return they shared their culture with him, from family and friendship to practical advice after a suicide bombing. But what’s always been at the forefront of Skateistan’s development, Ollie believes, is that, “It had to be Afghans solving Afghan problems.” Throughout its 11-year history, all of Skateistan’s skate instructors, educators and volunteers are local people rather than outsiders. “There’s a real danger in development where the rich see themselves as the saviours of the poor and that doesn’t work in the long term.” He explains. “It’s not coming from a place of respect. It’s saying, ‘we’ve got the money, so we’ll now tell you what to do’.”
It all circles back around. “For something to work into a relationship and so it can grow, there has to be communication and there has to be respect. There has to be listening from both sides. That’s something that was very much part of how Skateistan started and that’s the way we’ve continued to go.”
“There’s a real danger in development where the rich see themselves as the saviours of the poor and that doesn’t work in the long term”
Skateistan has successfully organically changed the lives of many kids across the globe, from giving them a safe outlet to express themselves, to teaching them about their rights and getting them back into school. Ollie’s not short of stories about young people who’ve entered a Skateistan programme as street-working kids and gone on to become nurses or law graduates; many are still involved with the organisation as educators or skate instructors. Skateistan itself has won numerous awards and has grown to employ 86 people globally, with supporters ranging from governments and big brands, to public donators and volunteers like Tom.
Did Ollie ever think it would get so big?
He laughs. “Absolutely not!”
But as you can see, when the plan is no plan, that’s when the good stuff happens.