Healing war wounds: Meet Syria’s circus in exile

Refugees in a circus performance at the Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan. (Sirkus Magenta) Source: Circus Za'atri blog

Syrians are learning circus skills in a hot and dusty refugee camp in Jordan, with the hope of one day returning home to establish Syria's first national circus.

In a hot and dusty refugee camp, young Syrian refugees are working on their circus skills.

More than 80,000 Syrian refugees live in Za'atri Refugee Camp in northern Jordan as fighting rages in their homeland.

The Syrian National Circus trains refugees to learn skills like juggling, acrobatics and unicycling.

Sometimes the students and trainers perform for the other residents of Za'atri, a large desert camp of tents and shipping containers established in July 2012 in response to the crisis in Syria.

The circus performers hope they will one day return to their homes and establish Syria's first national circus.

Pic - The Syrian National Circus in Za'atri Refugee Camp performs in front of a crowd. ((C) Topi Hurtig)

Za'atri's circus was instigated in 2013 by Finnish circus company Sirkus Magenta, which specialises in "social circus" -  promoting social inclusion through learning circus skills. It's previously worked with disadvantaged youth and immigrant children in Finland.

The project is funded by Finnish humanitarian and advocacy organisation, Finn Church Aid (FCA), which requested Sirkus Magenta to bid for the contract in 2012 to provide support in the camp.

FCA spokesperson Ulla Kärki said the project's aim was two-fold: to give meaningful activity for the children and youth living in Za'atari camp and to involve the refugees, including as trainers, so the refugee community could own the project.

"We succeeded in this," Ms Kärki said.

Sirkus Magenta's project manager Sarah Hudson said there was another goal.

"Our goal [was] to train the young Syrians to set up their own sustainable circus school," Ms Hudson told SBS.

"Now they've been running the circus school on their own for over a year and a half."

The circus now has enough talented performers to put on live shows inside the camp.


جزء من عرض سيرك سوريا في حفلة منظمة ال unfpa نامل ان ينال اعجابكمPart of the circus syria show in unfpa enjoy 

Posted by Syrian National Circus on Friday, 12 June 2015


Anwar Abu Jesh, who lives in Za'atri camp, is a circus performer and was a trainer before recently leaving the circus.

'I was making them heal and trust that there are better places in the world and there are good people in the world.' 

Anwar is originally from the United Arab Emirates but moved to Syria to study at university. He arrived at the Za'atri refugee camp almost three years ago.

Many of Anwar's students were traumatised.

"I was doing special planning for them every day," he told SBS.

Pic - Anwar Abu Jesh with a class of circus students. ((C) Topi Hurtig)

He said 80 per cent of his work was psychological. He taught his students acrobatics, juggling, funny tricks and games to help them heal psychologically.

"I was making them heal and trust that there [are] better places in the world and there [are] good people in the world," Anwar said.

Anwar learned his circus skills in the camp, mostly from Sirkus Magenta, although it's not the only circus group to visit Za'atri. A group called 2wheels4change, and a Palestinian group called Nablus Circus School have worked in the camp.

Limited supplies

At first, the circus lived behind the thin walls of two canvas tents but eventually found a home in a hangar.

While the camp has its own circus gear, including unicycles and juggling equipment, supplies have been limited.

Some equipment has been made from necessity, including stilts from bits of wood and pants made from canvas.

"The girls went and made some nice bunting out of plastic bags," Ms Hudson said.

At one point the circus made its own juggling balls out of socks, plastic bags and sand.

Pic - The finished result - juggling balls made from plastic bags, sand and socks. (Sirkus Magenta)

Ms Hudson told SBS the circus had been effective on many fronts, including to help the camp residents run their own circus and heal their war trauma.

"One of the women actually said, 'circus has done more to help the psychology of my daughter to help overcome the war trauma than any psychologist could have done'," Ms Hudson recalled one mother as saying.

"They have said that the girls have been quite scarred when they arrived in the camp, all the children really suffering from the trauma of having air strikes all the time and ducking every time a plane flies over the camp."

"They said that the circus has been incredible in helping the girls learn to smile and laugh again ... To find friends and have a really happy distraction ... and build social relationships again."

Pics - Sirkus Magenta's blog.

While Anwar no longer works with the circus, he says circus performing and training will remain a part of his life.

"Of course I will stay as a performer/trainer when return to Syria," he said. "It's my job actually."

It is unclear when Anwar and other Syrians in exile will no longer need to live in Za'atri, with no end in sight to the fighting in Syria.

The camp's population peaked at about 200,000 in April 2013, but has declined since then.

Za'atri is just 12 km from the border of Syria's Da'ara Governorate, where most of the camp's residents have come from.

The camp is so large it has its own shops and services, including a bridal shop and a magazine called 'The Road', which refugees write for other refugees.

Despite the harsh weather and tough conditions, many residents have taken ownership of the circus. 

"There are now three Syrian male trainers and two Syrian female trainers who are running the classes," Ms Hudson said.

The trainers have worked five days per week for well over a year and a half, Ms Hudson said. 

For some in the circus, training is very physical and preventing injuries has been a battle for the circus from the beginning.

It's an old video but we found it interesting Made by Anwar Abu Alnoor and ebrahemo (the leader of syria 3run) COMING SOON.....

Posted by Syrian National Circus on Monday, 10 August 2015

"When they tumble or do tricks, they have absolutely no fear of injury or death or whatever," Ms Hudson said.

"It gives a fantastic outlet for that energy, I think, which would otherwise be spent causing trouble in the camp, quite possibly."

Some girls are involved in the circus, but cultural factors mean there are not as many.

Pic - Girls demonstrate some acro juggling. (Sirkus Magenta)

"It's hard to get permission for the girls to stay involved in it, that's the biggest challenge," Ms Hudson said.

The people who live in Za'atri are from many different places - some conservative.

"Some of them just want their girls to stay at home and cook and clean, or just stay at home."

The girls who are involved love it and their families see the value, Ms Hudson said.

One of the girl's mothers is heavily involved.

"The mother is Mariam, a volunteer for the circus," Ms Hudson said. "She goes around every morning and collects the girls and takes them to the circus. It's not socially acceptable for them to walk through the camp on their own. She's a bit like the matriarch of the circus. Her son is one of the trainers."

Ms Hudson said the hardest part was seeing people return to Syria.

The hope is that those who return will take the circus with them.

"One of the really talented guys is back in Syria at the moment," Ms Hudson said. "He posted some really amazing flipping and tricking outside Damascus."

This article has been updated with a photographer's name, and corrections added - 'tricking' not 'trekking' and one circus hangar, not two. 

Source SBS

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