Nothing brings a smile to a child’s face more quickly than watching the circus. Except, perhaps, being able to perform the feats themselves.

Sirkhane Social Circus School in Turkey trains refugee children from Syria in the art of circus performance as a way of bringing joy into a very difficult situation. A typical day of classes consists of children juggling, spinning multicolored plates, doing tricks on a trapeze and walking on stilts.

But the school is dedicated to more than just teaching practical skills. For the Syrian refugee children, circus arts have become a way of dealing with the trauma they have witnessed. 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 form friendships with children from different backgrounds.

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.

Sirkhane School was founded by the Turkish organization Art Anywhere, an NGO which works to bring art to communities. Over the past three years, Sirkhane has trained more than 600 young circus performers. According to co-founder Pinar Demiral, the school’s main goal is to give these children a second chance to experience childhood.

Sirkhane 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 from impoverished backgrounds.

The Red Nose Foundation in Indonesia welcomes children from two of the most impoverished areas in Jakarta, a fishing community and a trash pickers’ slum.

Kids describe the classes as a way to fill free time, and parents say that spending time at the learning centers teaches the children to be 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 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 a social circus, their acrobatic and artistic skills sometimes become a source of income. The Cambodian non-profit Phare Ponleu Selpak, a social circus organization whose name translates to “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 on to study in Europe, the United States and Canada.

The movement is still growing. The first Social Circus Day in April of 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 the children already know: regardless of setting or circumstances, the power of laughter prevails.

Emilia Otte

Photo: Flickr