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Skateboard school ramps up Afghan dreams

By Arwa Damon, CNN
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More than just a skateboarding school
  • Skateboard park provides route to education for Afghan street children
  • Skateistan provides skate, art and English lessons to kids working on Kabul's streets
  • The kids sell food products and trinkets on the streets but earn little
  • Skateistan started as a one-ring skate park; now it's a state of the art facility serving 300 children

Kabul (CNN) -- The girls come tumbling through the door giggling and shrieking with excitement. They dash towards the neatly stacked shoes, knee guards, helmets, and skateboards.

Scarves flying, they fearlessly zip down the skateboarding ramps. This is Skateistan, Afghanistan's first and only skateboarding school -- but it provides much more than just an escape into sport.

"Teacher, this part scares me," 13-year-old Faranas cries out laughing as she tries to maneuver through the u-shaped ramp.

"It's been a year-and-a-half since I started skateboarding," she says. "When I was working on the street one of the teachers came and wrote down our names."

Afghanistan Crossroads blog

Two weeks later, Faranas was on a board for the first time, free from the tensions of war-ravaged Kabul.

Like half the girls at the school, she lives in poverty. UNICEF estimates that there are 50,000 to 60,000 children in Kabul who earn a pittance selling food products and trinkets on city streets.

"When we started the whole program, the Skateistan project, we had a divide between the street children and better situated children," Deputy Director Max Henninger says. "After six months, we saw that this divide was gone. They kissed each other on the cheek and that's actually what we want. We want to build trust between different Afghan ethnicities, and between foreigners and Afghans."

Skateistan's humble beginning
Child scavenges for family's survival
Before I came to Skateistan, I used to think that I wouldn't be able to do anything with my future.
--Fazila, 14, an instructor

Skateistan's real aim isn't skateboarding. That is simply the hook to get the children in.

"We're trying to create opportunities for our students, which means we want to educate them through activities we do in the classroom," Henninger says.

That includes art classes, English lessons, a girls' journalism course, a disabled class and a critical "Back to School" program to help children from impoverished families enroll or re-enroll into public schools.

Find out more about the Skateistan project

Skateistan started up in 2007 when two Australian skateboarders realized the children's enthusiasm and curiosity as they cruised around Kabul.

Two years later, they were able to construct a state of the art skate park and educational facility, serving more than 300 boys and girls a week.

Fourteen-year-old Fazila was among the first to catch the skateboarding bug three-and-a-half years ago. All she knew at the time was a life that revolved around working on the streets to help her parents support her seven other siblings.

"Before I came to Skateistan, I used to think that I wouldn't be able to do anything with my future," she says. "But now I think I will become the best skateboarder."

In fact, she wants to be a professional one day. Fazila works as one of the instructors, making up to $170 a month, a welcome relief for her impoverished family, but it is never enough to make ends meet.

"My mom wants me to stop working on the streets," she says. "But I still have to, I have to support my family."

At dusk, she changes out of her borrowed sneakers and into a long green coat and black headscarf and heads into Kabul's traffic, cleaning car windows for small change.

It's as if a light has gone out in her eyes, but at least she can day dream about tomorrow, when she is back on her board.