Looking back on what led up to the building of the Royal Bengal Skatepark in Gazipur. A great Q & A with Skate Jawn Magazine and BSKA Founder, Susie Halsell.
For the full article with photos click here.
What is Bangladesh Street Kids Aid, and how long has it been around?
BSKA is a 501 c3 nonprofit organization based here in California but operating in Bangladesh. It offers skateboarding and creative arts programs to vulnerable youth that live and/or work on the streets. BSKA was officially registered in March of 2017 but I have been informally running skate programs in Bangladesh ever since my first trip there in 2007.
Describe the life of a Bangladeshi kid.
It varies between the different classes, but the kids we serve are from the very low-income class so I will speak on that. They basically wake up in the street wherever they ended up crashing for the night, sometimes a stairwell, sometimes the middle of the road, or on a bus bench. A lot of them abuse inhalants so they can pretty much sleep through anything once they’re out. They wake up and start roaming the streets collecting recyclables to turn in for money, then usually meet up with a gang of other “street kids” or rastar baccha, in the Bangla terminology. The gang of kids get into a lot of trouble together (stealing, trespassing, loitering, etc.) and are looked down upon by other members of society as worthless and as a nuisance because they hang out in public areas and beg from people. For fun they love to climb trees, ride on the tops of trains or buses for a free fare to other areas of the city, and play sports like cricket, soccer, and badminton. There is a lot of British colonial influence within the realm of sports still. A lot of them have other odd jobs aside from collecting recyclables but are not the usual jobs you’d imagine a kid doing like welding, woodworking, bus driver assistant, and things like that.
What is it about skateboarding that you think will help improve the lives of the youth?
The Bangladeshi kids already like to take risks for fun, skateboarding gives them the opportunity and freedom to do just that in a safe and a bit more structured environment with positive mentors there to help them learn. It also gives them something to work at getting better at, something they can support each other doing together as friends. The wider community also sees them in a new light, as kids with enormous potential, when they see them confidently skateboarding. They are just skateboarders, and all the stereotypes that go along with different social classes, genders, religions, etc. disappear. Our street kids are also usually pretty weak and don’t have much of an appetite when we pick them up for skate sessions. Skating makes them hungry and we make sure to provide snacks and a healthy meal after every session. They usually want to stay active in other sports when we aren’t skateboarding. In general, they adopt a healthier lifestyle and stay away from inhalants as they become more involved in our skate programs.
Is there a skate scene in Bangladesh?
Yes, it’s relatively small compared to the skate scene in the U.S. but it’s growing day by day. The main barrier to skateboarding being able to take off in Bangladesh is the fact that there are still very limited places to skate in the super densely populated country. Imagine half of the U.S. population all living on a piece of land the size of New York state. Many people still live off the land in rural village areas. That’s why we’re based in the capital of Dhaka, there are tons of places to skate but a lot of issues with security guards as well. BSKA gets special permission to use a public park for our weekly skate sessions since we are working with vulnerable kids. Even with a harsh climate and limited space to skate, there are still a lot of people who are crazy about skating. They even got their first board shop this year that hosted the country’s first Go Skateboarding Day event in 2019. Most of the skaters I know in Bangladesh have been relying on people to bring them skateboards for over 10 years now, so the shop has been a big help to them in growing their community. The Bangladeshis have their own indigenous form of a skateboard, made with four small steel wheels and bamboo, but it’s made only for butt-boarding. I’ve seen kids bomb hills on them though. They call their bamboo boards “cars” and when they see a skateboard for the first time they call it a “car” too and try to push each other around on it like they do with their traditional boards.
Aside from skateboarding, what are some services/programs BSKA offers for the youth?
Through that initial connection of skateboarding as a big group, we build trust with the kids and help them get back into school, provide emergency medical care, hot meals, personal care items, clothes, medicine and vitamins, and fun stuff like toys occasionally. We pay for school tuition and uniforms for kids that do well in school. We have art and English instruction programs along with constant mentorship about the dangers of living on the street and inhalant abuse. We also do our best to re-connect kids with their families whenever possible.
How did you get in contact with Josh (Wonders Around the World) about building a skatepark in Bangladesh?
Josh just shot me a message through Facebook. He told me that WAW has been set on building a skatepark in Bangladesh ever since they had some Bangladeshis help them on their build in the Maldives. Shortly after my conversation with Josh, I saw the article on Jenna Hirt in the Interview Issue of Skate Jawn by happenstance at my local skate shop, Lighthouse in Santa Barbara, California. Jenna is also a member of the WAW team. Now she is totally on board to help with the build in Bangladesh as well.
How long have you been fighting for a skatepark in Bangladesh?
The battle has been real for roughly ten years now. What I thought would be an easy process has been the most challenging yet rewarding experience of my life. First, I had to learn the language and come to understand their culture which is completely different than what I grew up in. I traveled back and forth to Bangladesh, sometimes two or three times a year, going back to the U.S. to work and save money so I could return. I’m fluent in Bangla now, but when I couldn’t speak the language I was very easily cheated out of a good chunk of my hard-earned money when I tried to purchase some land to build the skatepark on. Making connections with people I can trust was one of the hardest parts of being a foreigner in Bangladesh. The country is known for its outstanding hospitality, but some exceptionally crafty people used a false version of this hospitality as a way to get into my bank account. It has been hard to raise support beyond my own funds and some donations from close friends and family since only a few supporters comprehend what a useful tool skateboarding is to empower the youth. We’ve been denied grants solely on the fact that our programs are “skateboarding-related.” Now that the Olympics are finally recognizing it as an official sport, I’m hoping fundraising will get a bit easier. BSKA also secured a partnership with the Goodpush Alliance, an initiative of Skateistan to share knowledge among social skate projects worldwide. We now have access to a network of genuinely good people that are highly supportive of skateboarding projects. Goodpush is also helping us with the logistics of making the skatepark happen and making our programs more effective. Being a female and the head of this organization, is another challenge by itself. I get strange looks everywhere I go in Bangladesh, and people ask a lot of questions about why I’m not married yet, 33 is way past the cut-off of 25 to get married in Bangladesh. Even here in the U.S.A. people question the fact of whether or not I can even skate, just because I’m a girl. Do people question guys that say they’re skaters about whether or not they can really skate? No. I think if I’d been a male, this project would have moved on a lot more quickly. I have wanted to just give up so many times but something miraculous always happens that keeps the fire lit, and I’m super confident that my BSKA team, the WAW team, and the amazing folks at Goodpush are going to make the skatepark in Bangladesh a reality in the very near future!
Will this be the first skatepark in Bangladesh?
Yes! All of their neighboring countries like Nepal, India, and Myanmar have parks. Now it’s Bangladesh’s time. It will be done by February 2020.
Is there currently a design for the skatepark?
Yes, it is a basic plaza design with a good mix of transition and street elements but we will be integrating the ideas of the local skaters so it’s up for any number of changes up until the actual build. Josh from WAW and his team spearheaded the initial design and proposal.
What are the goals of the skatepark?
To be a safe place where kids can learn how to skate and receive lots of care and support from BSKA staff and volunteers. This park will serve as a place for our BSKA kids to work on their skills, build confidence, and realize their enormous amount of potential. It will also be a hub for community events like skate camps, art and music performances, and relevant workshops.
How can people get involved/ volunteer/ donate?
By visiting our website www.bskaid.org
BSKA will be doing a call for international volunteers for either 1-month, 3-month, or 6-month long volunteer placements. We will also launched an official online fundraiser for this project in August 2019.
Any shout outs or last words?
I’m just so thankful and stoked that this park is finally going to be built. It’s been a long road to say the least. I’m looking forward to seeing how much the kids are going to progress once they have some new obstacles to practice on. Shout out to everyone who helped bring this project to this point so far: George Powell (who donated the first boards to Bangladesh), Heidi Lemmon of Salt Rags skateboards, SPAUSA, Jersey Mike at Mini-Logo/Skate-One, Sohail Ahmed for donating the land we will build on, Aysha Monica for helping run our programs and so much more, and to the kids of Bangladesh for being my inspiration to keep going even when I think things are way beyond me. Biggest shout out goes to my huge-hearted parents, Margie and Chuck Halsell, for showing so much love and support throughout all the years I’ve been chasing this dream.