SEATTLE — Nothing brings a smile to a child’s face more quickly than watching the circus. Except, perhaps, being able to perform the tricks themselves. Sikhane Social Circus School in Turkey trains refugee children from Syria in the art of circus performance as a way of bringing joy into the midst of a very difficult situation. A typical day of classes will have children juggling, spinning multicolored plates, doing tricks on the trapeze, and walking on stilts.
But the school is about more than just learning practical skills. For the Syrian refugee children, circus arts becomes a way of dealing with the trauma they have experienced. They practice peace and harmony in a safe environment.
Located in an old house in Mardin, a city on the Turkish-Syrian border, the school serves students from Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq as well as refugees from Syria. The children learn teamwork and make friendships with children from backgrounds different than their own.
Older children are often inspired to give back to the community by becoming mentors to the younger students, in a program called Circus Heroes. These older students also put on their own performances and participate in larger festivals.
Sikhane School was founded by the Turkish organization Art Anywhere, an NGO which works to bring art to the community. In the past three years, Sirkhane has trained more than 600 young circus performers. According to co-founder Pinar Demiral, the aim of the school is to give these children a second chance to experience childhood.
Sikhane is part of the social circus movement, a global movement that uses circus arts to reach children and youth who are considered at-risk. Social circus organizations work not only with refugees and victims of war trauma, but also with children who come from a background of poverty. The Red Nose Foundation in Indonesia welcomes children from two of the most impoverished areas in Jakarta—a community where fisherman live, and a trash picker’s slum.
Kids describe the classes as a way to fill free time, and parents say that spending time at the learning centers has made the children more patient and polite. The foundation hopes that circus performance will inspire the kids to be more confident, responsible, and aware of the world around them.
Besides teaching basic juggling, clowning and acrobatics, Red Nose also offers more traditional education classes, particularly in the areas of English and math, all through the lens of the creative arts.
For these children, science lessons might involve drawing pictures of the solar system or of a particular ecosystem. English is taught through the medium of creative drama. The organization also offers scholarships to help cover schooling expenses for children who have participated in the program for two or more years.
For students who continue to attend social circus, their acrobatic and artistic skills can turn into a source of income. Cambodian nonprofit Phare Ponleu Selpak, a social circus organization whose name translates into “The Brightness of the Arts,” specializes in training students who wish to work professionally in creative fields.
The organization runs a Visual and Applied Arts School, which trains Cambodian youth in fine arts, graphic design and animation, and a Performing Arts School, which teaches theatre, dance and music as well as circus techniques. Graduates of the program have gone to study in Europe, the United States and Canada.
The movement continues to grow. The first Social Circus Day, in April 2016, brought together organizations from 32 countries, including Zambia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, El Salvador and Italy. Entire communities came together to celebrate and enjoy the performances.
This is perhaps the most important lesson of social circus, a lesson which the children already know: regardless of place or circumstance, the power of laughter prevails.
– Emilia Otte