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Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan is a grim place. Set in the desert, it’s cold in winter, hot in summer and the dust gets everywhere. Violence and disorder are real problems. Here, in two 80m² tents, Topi Hurtig and a team of circus trainers teach juggling, acrobatics and clownery to young Syrian refugees.
Acrobatics and circus activities at a refugee camp may sound strange at first. However, circus is a good vehicle for both releasing war traumas and discharging the energy that builds up in young people forced to live in a small space.
“The funny thing about circus is that it tugs you along and you forget your worries. This happens every time I teach groups with special needs”, Topi Hurtig says.
Hurtig’s speciality is social circus. At home in Helsinki, Finland, his circus association works with special needs groups: with foster kids and in retirement homes, school drop-outs, people with disabilities and troubled youth.
“At Za’atri, our lessons have the same structure and rules as always. We activate young people not only physically but also mentally. We bring forth their creativity and emotions.”
Circus is a sport where competition is replaced with cooperation and helping each other. Failing is encouraged.
Laughter and fistfights
The students are aged fifteen and up – or at least, they’re supposed to be, though in reality, younger children know the age limit and may tell fibs to gain access to the classes.
“It’s difficult to say what these young people were like before the war,” Hurtig contemplates.
Experts say that children’s limbic systems become paralysed in war situations and they cannot do things that require complicated thinking and actions.
“Sometimes, in the middle of an activity some of them seem to forget what they’re doing. Some youth have trouble focusing and listening to instructions. But doing activities that involve emotions makes kids relax.”
“We mimic different emotions. For example, we’ll play the statue game, in which music plays and kids move in different ways, like jumping on one leg, then when the music stops the kids are given an instruction, eg. “Three… in a car!” They then quickly make groups of three and use their bodies to create a “sculpture” representing a car. The last round of the game is always: "Four… Love!’”
Lessons are often very emotional – there’s a lot of laughter and hugs –but also anger, problems and fighting. Most young boys and girls are clearly in dire need of adult attention. Playing is often violent – juggling clubs turn into missiles, wooden stilts into rocket launchers.
“But the boys love playing princess and monster,” Hurtig says. “They take turns playing the monster, the princess and being the castle.”
Engineer turned acrobat
Topi Hurtig, 36, has a degree in engineering and he worked as one for years. He went to acrobatics class because he was tired with competitive sports – and realized from the start that circus was his thing.
Teaching circus activities is now a calling for him. When the Finnish NGO Finn Church Aid, a member of the ACT Alliance coalition, asked his circus association Magenta to put together a team and come to Za’atri, they were ready to go in two weeks’ time.
“We want to help through circus. In the refugee camp the need for help is so evident, and the results of our work are visible in the joy of young boys and girls.”
Circus at Za’atri is now a part of Finn Church Aid’s humanitarian operation with Syrian refugees and will continue late into the year. The end goal of the program is to train Syrians living inside the camp so that they can continue to run the circus themselves.