Circus Troupe Tries to Lift Spirits of Syrian Refugees

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Meeri Koutaniemi / FCA / ACT

In the Zaatari refugee camp, Topi Hurtig and a team of circus trainers teach juggling, acrobatics and clownery to young Syrian refugees.

You can’t really call it the Big Top. The tent that contains Circus Zaatari is just one more among thousands of tents in the sprawling refugee camp, and none is very tall. When one Syrian refugee stands on the shoulders of another Syrian refugee, the one on top has to hunch down to avoid hitting the canvas ceiling. There are stilts, but they elevate the person standing on them by maybe 18 inches. The unicycle is not really the sort an audience gasps at the thought the rider falling from. Not that there’s an audience anyway.

“Of course our goal is not to be circus artists, but to be in a safe place for two hours every day,” says Topi Hurtig, the Finnish circus trainer in perhaps the most novel social program to rise from the maelstrom surrounding Syria’s civil war. “We use circus as a way of improving people’s psychological well being.”

It seems to work. In the midday lassitude of Zaatari, where more than 100,000 refugees of the fighting have found refuge but not much else in an expanse of Jordanian desert, the circus tent brims with a bubbling but focused energy. Ten young men scamper about on the balls of their feet, rehearsing back flips, front flips, shoulder stands, somersaults, and elaborate maneuvers they’ve found surfing YouTube. Clad in tee shirts and sweat pants, they queue to sprint the length of the tent and throw themselves into the air, their landing cushioned by three UN-issue sleeping pads, taped together into a crash matt. (The budget is tight.)

The class is for young men aged 17 to 24. Veterans, who have been coming for months, perform impressive turns, and come up beaming. But the test of what Hurtig calls “this social circus” must be the new kid, a teenager in a striped blue sweater who for a minute or so can’t seem to find a gap in flow of determined show-offs bounding down the runway. Then, after three or four stuttering starts, he finally makes his own hole, runs the length of the tent and attempts a flip that ends up more of a cartwheel as he falls sideways. But he spins back to the group with a wide grin and dancing eyes.

“It’d be really awesome to have a trampoline,” says Hurtig. “A tight rope? That’d be great.” But they’re more than getting by with balance sticks fashioned from PVC pipe, a cushioned floor made of the foam puzzle pieces you see in the play areas of day cares, and a surfeit of spirit.

“When I wake up in the morning, I don’t feel lazy,” says Mohammed Ali, 19, who like most people living in Zaatari, arrived from the Daraa governorate in Syria’s south, where the protests against President Bashar Assad first began.  “I have something to look forward to.”

It’s a conundrum of camp life, the boredom of exile that follows the trauma of flight. Without the circus training, says Mohammed Al-Kafra, 18, “I’d be sitting at the mouth of my tent, bored to death.” The United Nations and a host of international aid groups provide food and shelter and even schools, but Syrians are an industrious lot, and there’s almost no work in the camp. For young men of military age the tension is between idleness and the pressure to return to Syria as a fighter.  “I’d love to,” says Al-Kafra from under a furrowed brow. And some do go back.

“We have really promising guys who come for a month, and then we hear he left for Syria, to fight,” says Hurtig, with a shake of the head. The goal of the project, which is administered by Finn Church Aid, is to channel youthful energies into teamwork and self-regard. Hurtig’s group, Sirkus Magenta, recognized the therapeutic potential of the inter-dependence and sheer physicality required in circus work, not to mention the fun. His female partner was doing the same work with young refugee women in the next tent.

“It’s helping us,” says Ali, whose family remains in Syria. “We feel it’s helping us to feel alive.”

The stunts run about an hour, followed by a cool-down that lasts at least as long, and takes the form, once again, of play. Hurtig forms the group into a circle for a game that involves passing an imaginary ball between the players. The rules turn out to be so complex that it’s almost impossible not to make a mistake. “The idea in this game is to make mistakes,” the Finn explains. It’s also fitness. On each round, whoever messes up first has to drop to the mat and do five push-ups, as those standing around you shout out the numbers.

“So the more you fail,” Hurtig tells the refugees, “the stronger you get.”