Mardin, Turkey – When he was younger, Khaled Kasim grew accustomed to juggling multiple burdens. Now, the 15-year-old Syrian refugee just juggles.
“At the beginning,” explains Khaled, “I didn’t take this as seriously as the other children. I wasn’t in the mood to do it.
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“But my friend told me they had a lot of nice things to do. I decided to come and try it and since that day, I haven’t left.”
He’s talking about the Sirkhane Social Circus School, which is located in an old house in the city of Mardin, on the Turkish-Syrian border.
Run by a Turkish nonprofit organisation called Art Anywhere, the centre teaches children how to be circus performers as a form of therapy.
Khaled once took classes here. Now, he teaches them. But that’s not all – like others at this school, he’s also performed for children in refugee camps in Turkey. Knowing how fortunate he is, it’s a way of giving back.
“The moment I see a child looking at me while I’m doing the show and I see him laugh, I really get like I’m in another world,” says Khaled as he smiles.
“No matter if I did a good or bad show, the only thing that matters to me is that the child laughed.”
In another room, children try spinning colourful plates. It’s a tough job, but even when the plates fall, the mood remains lighthearted – and frustration is nowhere to be found.
Pinar Demiral who cofounded the organisation in 2012, tells me the programme helps these war weary children overcome trauma, adding that it is based on a very basic principle.
“We want to make the children happy,” says Pinar.
“The children who deserve their happiness, their childhood – they need to have a space where they … can feel fully like they are living their childhood as it should be.”
“You cannot fight in here,” insists Pinar.
“Because all the things we are doing in here, it’s against all the things that are happening in the world. So we want to grow children with this idea – to make friends, new friends and to not fight, to not hurt each other. Just let’s play together.
“Let’s learn together in a peaceful environment like this.”
While the majority of the students are Syrian, there are Turkish children attending as well.
Walk through another door and you’ll see a group being taught how to be trapeze artists, learning about the importance of balance and harmony – in ways both literal and figurative.
Fourteen-year-old Syrian refugee Sidra Yasin mastered these skills here as well. Now she wants nothing more than to help other members of her community.
Like Khaled, she is a member of a group at the centre called “Circus Heroes”.
They are older than the remainder of the students and help train the younger ones, while also putting on shows of their own.
“When they come here they get to enjoy this and then go back to their homes happy. That’s it. The important thing for me is that they be happy here,” Yasin said.
A quick glance around is all you need to see how good a job she is doing on that front. Here, it’s hard to tell which is higher, the level of enthusiasm or energy.
Either way, the playful mood is infectious and does not subside.
The Sirkhane Social Circus School is located just about a half-hour drive away from Syria. But when you see the looks of joy on these kids’ faces, when you watch just how much they love performing, you realise why, at this centre, Syria seems so much farther away.
Outside, the Circus Heroes begin walking on their stilts. As the music starts blaring, it’s clear we’re in for a surprise and that dancing is also part of the routine they’ve choreographed and are rehearsing.
As they stand tall and move gracefully, it’s a remarkable showcase for just how much they’ve overcome.