London, England – Marah Natshe was six years old when she was held at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers inspecting her house in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.
Seven years later, at 13, she joined the newly formed Palestinian Circus School (PCS), which aimed to offer young people a way of expressing the struggle of occupation through art.
Now 24, she is the first female circus trainer in Palestine and the leading female performer in “Sarab” – or mirage – PCS’ show with a difference.
The act features juggling and acrobatics but instead of fun and games, the group highlights the plight of refugees from the Middle East, including Palestinians, revealing how their dreams of finding sanctuary remains a mirage.
As the refugee crisis unfolded, PCS, which was founded in 2006, taught circus skills to those fleeing war and persecution in Turkey, Jordan and Germany and listened to their stories.
At a recent show in London’s Jackson’s Lane, as part of PCS’ European tour, bright stage lights glared as the scene opened.
We all hope someday to get back to the safe life. All refugees still have some hope inside of them that they can go back one day. This is the only thing we have, hope.
A group of Palestinians amuse each other with magic tricks, but it’s not long before it turns dark and the piercing sound of deadly Israeli drones pervades the theatre.
The spotlight turns to a survivor, who sweeps up fragments of thousands of children killed at the hands of Israelis in the occupied territories.
In another scene, later, a man wipes sweat from his forehead as he carries a heavy block of wood.
Natshe said the block could symbolise the heavy memories displaced communities hold on to.
“[Another] huge weight on our shoulders is that of having to take everything that is going on and being shut [off] and moving on,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that Sarab is more effective than other media because it makes the public “feel” as well as hear and see the message.
“You have to go and make them feel. Make their hearts feel the emotional things happening in front of their eyes,” she said. It is only then the audience connects and thinks, “now i’m living with them”.
Natshe said she hopes the performance prompts audiences to research the ongoing Palestinian crisis and act.
“We all hope someday to get back to the safe life,” she said. “All refugees still have some hope inside of them that they can go back one day. This is the only thing we have, hope.”
As for what PCS offers young Palestinians, the group is “a safe place to explore their anger through their bodies and minds,” said the performer.
“[That] is really more powerful” for children than roaming the streets and “doing things that might be very dangerous to their lives.
“I feel that when I enter this place I somehow find freedom. Since I first started, I felt like this place is home.”
PSC performed in London in April on three consecutive dates – all of which were sold out – as part of the 2018 CircusFest, hosted by the Roundhouse, with seven performers making creative use of a Chinese pole, wooden cubicles and a suitcase to reflect the multiple stories being told.
Spectator Tammy Walkers said the experience was “really moving”.
“It gave you a real feeling of the stress situation people live in,” Walkers told Al Jazeera.
A scene of a man carrying his life around on his back was “really harrowing,” she continued, “but it’s what life in a refugee camp is like.”
According to UNRWA, descendants of Palestinian refugees are considered refugees. Today, there are more than 5.5 million overall.
Another veteran performer, 21-year-old Hazar Azzeh from Ramallah, told Al Jazeera refugees go through such “living hell” that some “wish they could go back to a war zone”.
“In the East, we have this image of Europe, the US and UK, being like a heaven where people can be who they want, but when it comes to us [refugees], it’s honestly not.”
The PCS, she added, is a “powerful tool of resistance”.
“It’s so much more convincing and exciting … through art than lecturing and the media. In society, people don’t know they are the start button for change and that they can do a lot, so this is like a teasing tool for people to start and react to change something.
“We are not saying that they will free Palestine or bring all refugees back to their homelands, but they can push their governments and whatever their countries are doing against these people to stop doing it.”
But the circus teaches us how to fight in a different way - with our performance, act and bodies - but in a good way.
Palestinians account for one third of the worldwide population of refugees. Under the suffocating occupation of Israeli forces, life for Palestinian children is not only bleak but also dangerous.
Performer Ala’a Abo Alrob, 24, said that before joining the circus all he thought about was violence.
“But the circus teaches us how to fight in a different way – with our performance, act and bodies – but in a good way,” he said.