by Jeff Gammage / © 2022, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
When Merza Mohammadi flashes across [Philadelphia’s] Paine’s Park on his skateboard, the anguish of fleeing Afghanistan seems far away.
“The skateboard teaches me, ‘Merza, you can do anything,’” he said. “I fall, then I get up.”
Mohammadi is probably the best-known skater in Afghanistan. Or at least he was, until his evacuation amid the Taliban takeover flung him 11,000 miles to a house in South Philadelphia, into a life where everything is different.
In Kabul, [the capital of Afghanistan], he worked for Skateistan, a prominent international NGO, teaching skateboarding to thousands of children, “all the children in Afghanistan, the poor children,” Mohammadi said. He became the focus of a documentary and book about the organization’s efforts to provide sports and educational opportunities to traumatized boys and girls.
And in escaping the country, he left behind everything and everyone.
His mother is still in Afghanistan. And his siblings. And his fiancée. What came with him to the United States was the ability to maneuver a skateboard as if it [were] attached to the soles of his feet.
Skateistan suspended the programs it ran in three Afghan cities amid the mass evacuation. Two-thirds of the staff left the country.
Mohammadi came [to the U.S.] with the clothes on his back—and a connection to an old Skateistan colleague who live[s] in Philadelphia.
Brandon Gomez, a lifelong skateboarder, had just bought a house. Once in the U.S., Mohammadi reached out, and Gomez welcomed his friend to come live with him.
Mohammadi was a teenager when he first saw people moving across the ground on wheels.
At the time, Mohammadi [had a job] washing cars. When [he] first stepped onto a board, he fell on his back. His family—and his boss—told him he was wasting his time.
But every day after work, he said, he practiced, learning to keep his balance and becoming more comfortable on the board. After about a year, he became an official Skateistan volunteer.
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