Far from home, young Afghan refugees find community in skateboarding 

click to enlarge Shabeer, foreground, gets a hand riding the bowl at the ROC City Skatepark from Skateistan instructor Farzad Sharafi.

PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE

Shabeer, foreground, gets a hand riding the bowl at the ROC City Skatepark from Skateistan instructor Farzad Sharafi.

Farzad Sharafi stood in the belly of the concrete bowl at the Roc City Skatepark on a recent muggy day, the blistering sun beating down on him. Overhead, perched nervously on a skateboard clinging to the lip of the bowl, was Shabeer, a young Afghan boy and student at the Rochester International Academy, a public school for new immigrants.

Sharafi reached up to hold Shabeer's hands and counted in Dari, the boy's native tongue: “Yak, dou, se.” Shabeer rolled in.

“I feel so happy,” said Sharafi, an instructor with Skateistan, a nonprofit that introduces Afghan children and other youths who are often excluded from athletics to skateboarding and the creativity and freedom that comes with the sport. “I’m so happy, I’m skateboarding, I’m teaching, and also I’m learning.”

Sharafi and about 30 students were there that day with Rochester Rolling Resettlement, a new initiative of the Friends of Roc City Skatepark, a slew of nonprofits from around the country, and Skateistan. The nonprofit is based in Berlin, Germany, but started a pilot program in Rochester — the first in the United States — because of the city’s high concentration of refugees from Afghanistan.
click to enlarge Shabeer, left, and Rahmatullah line up for the walk over to the ROC City Skatepark. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Shabeer, left, and Rahmatullah line up for the walk over to the ROC City Skatepark.

Ben Rubin, of Rochester, worked with Skateistan overseas for several years before returning home. He sees Rolling Resettlement as a continuation of the mission that drove the skate programs in Afghanistan.

“I think it’s regulating, especially for people that have gone through a lot of pretty intense experiences, there can be something that’s really healthy and grounding with the community that’s involved with (skateboarding), ” Rubin said.

CITY is withholding publishing the full names of the student participants at the request of program organizers and school officials, who cited safety concerns for their families due to their refugee status.


FROM KABUL TO COURT STREET

Skateistan started in 2007 and in 2009 it opened its first full “skate school” in Kabul at the first skatepark in Afghanistan. The organization would later expand its operations into the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, just south of the border with Uzbekistan, and the western province of Bamiyan, about 150 miles northwest of Kabul. Skateistan has garnered some acclaim in recent years and notably in 2020 was the subject of Carol Dysinger’s Oscar-winning short documentary “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl).”

The program, while centered on skateboarding, also fostered students to play team sports like football and basketball, and provided academic support to students.
click to enlarge Rochester International Academy student Sadia works on rolling down a bank at the Roc City Skatepark. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Rochester International Academy student Sadia works on rolling down a bank at the Roc City Skatepark.
That skate school became a second home for children like Sharafi, who is now 23, and fellow instructors Sohaib Nasrati and Zainab Hussaini.

Hussaini now lives in Rochester. When she fled Afghanistan, she had been managing the Skateistan program there, and still works full-time for the organization. She had seen a skateboard in a photo on Skateistan’s website while a university student and was sucked in.

“When I entered into Skateistan, my life was completely changed,” Hussaini said.

As the United States pulled troops out of Afghanistan last summer, the Taliban quickly regained control of the country. Kabul fell just days before the troop withdrawal was to be completed. As the new regime took hold, thousands of Afghans fled the nation. Among them were Nasrati, Hussaini, and Sharafi, who ended up in Rochester late last year.
click to enlarge Sana and Sara, left, work on skating down a bank while Negah gets some help from Skateistan instructor Farzad Sharafi. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Sana and Sara, left, work on skating down a bank while Negah gets some help from Skateistan instructor Farzad Sharafi.
In the meantime, Skateistan was forced to suspend its operations in Afghanistan. The organization, which operates similar programs in Cambodia, Jordan, and South Africa, entered into its “new chapter” and established 15 locations around the world, many of which are now home to a significant number of refugees. The Rochester location was launched alongside those in Belgium, and Albania.

“I think it’s a really awesome opportunity to continue some of the work they were doing in Afghanistan in Rochester, and there’s a need for it,” Rubin said.

Last year, Rochester welcomed 323 refugees from Afghanistan, according to Catholic Charities Family and Community Services, which helps settle refugees in the area. To put that number in perspective, it is greater than the number of Afghans who had settled here in the previous five years combined, according to the agency.

The pace has slowed. This year to date, 111 Afghans have made Rochester home.

Rubin and Hussaini both sought a way to continue the work of Skateistan. The goal was not just to bring skateboarding to young refugees, but to create a community for children to engage with fellow Dari-speaking people in similar circumstances. (Dari is one of the official languages of Afghanistan.) The organization refers to its activities as “trauma-informed sports.”
click to enlarge Helen Barrett Montgomery School No. 50 student Rahmatullah walks hand and hand with Skateistan instructor Farzad Sharafi during the groups first trip to the ROC City Skatepark. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Helen Barrett Montgomery School No. 50 student Rahmatullah walks hand and hand with Skateistan instructor Farzad Sharafi during the groups first trip to the ROC City Skatepark.

Rochester Rolling Resettlement was born in March after its leaders coordinated with the Rochester City School District, and the Skateistan team received training from the district’s Office of Adult and Career Education Services.

‘BIG ARMS AROUND MY KIDS’

Rolling Resettlement is a first-of-its-kind pilot program for the city school district and launching it is a job that seems tailored for Hussaini and Rubin.

Through her experience in Skateistan, Hussaini had the skills to make Rolling Resettlement into a reality. Rubin, a lifelong skateboarder and globetrotter, has a wealth of connections in the skateboarding world.
click to enlarge Rahmatullah has his helmet adjusted by Skateistan instructor Farzad Sharafi before the group's first trip to the ROC City Skatepark. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Rahmatullah has his helmet adjusted by Skateistan instructor Farzad Sharafi before the group's first trip to the ROC City Skatepark.
Those connections led Rubin to Nestor Judkins, a pro skater who in 2020 founded the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Salad Days, which introduces disadvantaged children to skateboarding. Rolling Resettlement seemed like the perfect fit.

On a grassy knoll overlooking the Genesee Riverway Trail near the Roc City Skatepark, members of Rolling Resettlement and Salad Days laid out the equipment for the children's first outing. Salad Days donated 33 skateboards to the program — many of them Judkins’ own pro model from Enjoi Skateboards — alongside Adidas skate shoes, pads, helmets, decks, and assorted hardware.

“One of our co-directors knows Ben, they’ve worked together on some projects in the past,” Judkins said. “Their paths have crossed in this small world of skateboarding, and in the world of skateboarding aid, it’s an even smaller world.”
click to enlarge Instructors from the M.K. Gandhi Institute, Skateistan, and Salad Days arrange donated decks, sneakers, helmets, and other safety equipment for students to use at the ROC City Skatepark. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Instructors from the M.K. Gandhi Institute, Skateistan, and Salad Days arrange donated decks, sneakers, helmets, and other safety equipment for students to use at the ROC City Skatepark.
Rolling Resettlement has since March operated twice weekly at the Rochester International Academy, which is tucked inside Jefferson High School on Bloss Street. Principal Mary Andrecolich-Montesano was enthusiastic about the program from the start, and secured transportation for upcoming trips to the skatepark.

“When I met Ben, it was like he fell out of the sky, because all of my newest students were from Afghanistan,” Andrecolich-Montesano said. “It’s so important, because the first day when Ben and the instructors came in, and my students saw them and they spoke the same language, it was like big, gigantic arms wrapping around my kids.”

COMMUNITY ON WHEELS


As the International Academy students rolled through the park, learning from Nasrati and Sharafi basic maneuvers like kickturns and rapid directional changes called tic-tacs, Andrecolich-Montesano watched what she called the “fruits of our labor.”

Andrecolich-Montesano’s son grew up skateboarding so she had already been exposed to what she saw as a tight-knit community based around the sport, one that is both accepting and encouraging to newcomers.
click to enlarge Skateistan instructor Farzad Sharafi stands with Rochester International Academy student Mohammad watching some of the local skaters shred the bowl at the ROC City Skatepark. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Skateistan instructor Farzad Sharafi stands with Rochester International Academy student Mohammad watching some of the local skaters shred the bowl at the ROC City Skatepark.
“Even if you fall off the skateboard, somebody’s there to pick you back up,” Andrecolich-Montesano said. “Isn’t that what we want to teach them? That even if you fall off, you can get back up. Skateboarding teaches that.”

Skateboarding, to the members involved in the program, is more than exercise. It’s community, self-discipline, freedom, transportation, and empowerment all wrapped up in a wooden plank on four wheels.

Hussaini believes the sport is also valuable for empowering women, especially those who have been oppressed. She’s a trailblazer herself — the International Olympic Committee recently highlighted her for being the first woman to complete a marathon in Afghanistan, in 2015. Later, she’d become the first woman in that nation to complete an ultramarathon. In the past, she also practiced basketball and taekwondo, the latter of which she was forced to quit after police in Afghanistan shut down her club due to what she described as “sports not being for girls.”

“Sport is not only sport,” Hussaini said. “It has a really big meaning, especially for the women living in such countries as Afghanistan.”
click to enlarge Shamila ties up a pair of skate shoes for Rolling Resettlement's outing to the Roc City Skatepark. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Shamila ties up a pair of skate shoes for Rolling Resettlement's outing to the Roc City Skatepark.
Rolling Resettlement works with boys and girls in grades 2 through 12. Andrecolich-Montesano coordinated an effort between the International Academy and School 50 that allows young students to join their older siblings who are already in the program.

During their day at the skatepark, the kids started to learn the basics of skating: how to assemble a board, and how to support one another. Every time a student fell, Sharafi led shouts encouraging the skater to get back up and try again.

“When people see skateboarding for the first time, they think, ‘No, I can not do it.’ It was the same for me,” Hussaini said. “When I first saw a picture of a skateboard on the website, I thought, ‘People can do this in Afghanistan?

“My first experience was, huh, I can fly on a skateboard.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or [email protected].
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