Rare exports: Two years on, Finnish troupe's refugee camp circus runs itself

Finnish circus Sirkus Magenta works to promote social inclusion, self-determination and personal wellbeing through circus. This goal has taken them all around Europe, as well as further afield, including Mexico, Turkey and Afghanistan. Circus professional and Yle freelance journalist Sarah Hudson recently returned from Jordan, where she accompanied her circus colleagues, re-visiting the Syrian youth circus they helped established in Za’atri refugee camp over two years ago.

Cirque Syria stillikuva

Social exclusion comes in many forms, and for professionals working in what’s known as "social circus", laughter is a serious business. Through acrobatics, object manipulation and clownery, social circus invites participants into a world outside of the traumas or challenges of everyday reality— one in which it is safe to try new things, be a different person, to experiment, and most importantly, to fail.

Helsinki-based Sirkus Magenta is the largest of at least a dozen social circus organisations in Finland that work with children and youth, families in crisis, the elderly, people with mental and/or physical disability and other groups in need of special support.

Three years ago, humanitarian organisation Finn Church Aid asked Magenta to work with Syrian refugees as part of the NGO’s psychosocial support programme, sponsored by the Finnish Foreign Ministry. The goal was to support Syrian children and youth suffering from war trauma in the north of Jordan, in Za’atri refugee camp, some dozen kilometres from the Syrian border.

Finnish methods exported further afield

Topi Hurtig was a member of the original four-person team that started the project in the camp back in March 2013. He works primarily with youth and children in Helsinki and surrounding regions, but has altogether spent seven months in Jordan, training and guiding young Syrian men and boys to establish and run their own circus.

“We had great success with special needs groups in Finland, especially youth at risk and in family crisis centres. Working in a refugee camp, the methods are basically the same as we use in Finland or anywhere else,” explains Hurtig. “The needs of the participants are a little bit different, but our methods can be adapted.”

Circus for the Syrian males aged 15-24 is social, but also very physical. They train in floor and pair acrobatics, building physical fitness, trust and teamwork. Clownery and stilt-walking give youth a different perspective on the world, and a chance for a novel form of self-expression.

“I used to feel devastated,” says 16 year old Basil Alshahmeh. “I didn’t know how to do anything. When I saw that people were enjoying themselves at the circus I felt I wanted to join.”

His favourite activity is clownery and stilt-walking and his goal is to make people laugh. He hopes that one day their Syrian circus will be famous for their international shows.

“I love circus,” he says. “Clowning can cheer anyone up.”

Directing excess energy

While Za’atri refugee camp — the world’s second largest — caters for the most essential needs in terms of nutrition and shelter, desert life is bleak for traumatised youth forced to flee their homes. Security issues are a product of boredom, and overcoming this is also one of Finn Church Aid’s key concerns.

The programme seeks to offer an activity that gives children and youth the chance to laugh again and to direct otherwise potentially destructive energy positively.

“The camp opened up in July 2012 and it was at the beginning very aggressive. There were high tensions, they’d just come out of the war and security wise it wasn’t very stable,” says FCA field coordinator Sara Bashiti. “Now we’re in a much better place two years or two and a half years on.”

Hurtig explains that the main issue for male youth in Za’atri is simply having nothing to do.

“Boredom results in unused energy which they have no way to vent,” he says. “In the circus they’re offered a chance to do that in a safe and creative environment.”

“For my daughter, a psychologist may not have been as effective as the circus"

Women and girls also participate in the circus, although the numbers are substantially less than the males. The two female Syrian trainers — down from three since one moved back to Syria to find her family — work five days a week with a small group of women and girls. The young trainers sometimes face difficulties convincing more conservative members of the community that it is acceptable for females to do circus.

“Females aren’t usually allowed to walk around camp alone or mix and mingle with men or even work,” Bashiti explains. “But because of circus, the females [circus trainers] have come to be more self confident, more outgoing.”

However, according to FCA's focus group discussions, many mothers are supportive of this rather unorthodox brand of psychosocial support.

“For my daughter, a psychologist may not have been as effective as the circus,” says Mariam, mother of one of the young participants and also to one of the male trainers. She tries to convince other parents to allow the girls to come to the circus.

Mariam also claims that the vibe is different since Magenta arrived to spend more time with the youth. The young people run things themselves as well as they can, she remarks, but it’s demanding work, the trainers are tired, and ongoing support is needed from the outside world.

Finland a hub for social circus

Social circus was given a major boost in Finland in 2009, when the European Social Fund granted funds for a University of Tampere initiative to develop the Finnish professional field.

Since then, Finland has rapidly made a name for itself in the field of applied circus, which is slowly gaining credibility in sociological and pedagogical fields. For example, internationally renowned contemporary circus powerhouse Cirque du Soleil has a dedicated social circus branch called Cirque du Monde, which has helped to promote the methodology.

The international network for social circus stretches from Australia — where practitioners work with asylum seekers, Aboriginal people and marginalised youth, to the Canadian Arctic, where performers and trainers bring circus to isolated Inuit populations.

Communication and collaboration between projects is becoming more organised, and Sirkus Magenta trainers and youths have visited at least eight countries in the last year.

Taking tips from Afghanistan

Back in Za’atri’s circus hangar the young men flip, trick, tumble and shout. They lift each other into the air, zip around on unicycles, clown about on stilts, and manipulate all sorts of circus paraphernalia — juggling balls, clubs and more.

It’s the fourth time in Jordan for circus trainer and coordinator Topi Hurtig. He says a lot has changed since the project began over two years ago.

“They’ve taken ownership of the circus,” says Hurtig. “Everything’s gotten bigger. They now train in a hangar. The first year we only had small, dusty tents that let sub-zero air in the winter and trapped fifty-degree Celsius heat in summer.”

Hurtig traveled to Afghanistan last year to gather ideas from a social circus organisation that has been operating there for some 14 years, using circus to overcome tribal divisions. It was from this organisation that Magenta realised the necessity of encouraging the youth to have a long-term vision.

“It will always be difficult running a circus in a refugee camp. But they have given themselves a clear goal - planted a sort of a seed,” Hurtig says. “They now call themselves Cirque Syria - this is the birth of the Syrian National Circus. It gives them hope of getting back and getting back to Syria — and when they do, it will help them to rebuild their country.”

Sarah Hudson is a freelance journalist for Yle News. She is also the director of Sirkus Magenta’s international projects — including the Za’atri circus. In March she traveled to Jordan to film a documentary for Yle’s Silmminäkijä (“Eyewitness)” programme. "Pakolaissirkus" will be screened on Yle’s TV2 at 8pm on Thursday 14.5 (in English and Arabic with Finnish subtitles).