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Feb 10 2019

A project turning frowns upside down for children of war

For almost five years now in Turkey’s Southeastern city of Mardin, local and foreign volunteer teachers at the Her Yerde Sanat Derneği (Art Everywhere Foundation) have been organizing circus training and activities to heal children’s war wounds and bring them back into society. At the centre of this is Sirkhane (Circus House), where instructors use what is known as “social circus” as a pedagogical approach. At Sirkhane, they give lessons in circus arts such as juggling, acrobatics, and using stilts, along with classes in other art forms and language.

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The name for Sirkhane comes from the Turkish word sirk (circus) plus the word hane/xane/khane, which means “house” in Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic. The organisers’ greatest dream was to create a place in Mardin where children and young people from different backgrounds could come together in an inclusive space, where there is no discrimination, and where art is the common language of people from different countries, mother tongues, and religions.

Pınar Demiral, the founder of the organisation, has an educational background in Stage and Performing Arts Direction. She first came to Mardin in 2009, when she was a university student, to work on a photography project with children living near minefields in the regions along the Syrian border. This was when she first started thinking about what she could do to change these children’s lives. Demiral has travelled around the world learning about various social justice projects. In Greece in 2008, she participated in a circus training programme and witnessed how effective this type of pedagogy can be for children and young people. She returned to Turkey, and in 2011, she began her social circus work in Mardin. It started as a two-year project, and she went around meeting children in remote and hard-to-reach villages. That two-year project stretched on for eight years. Demiral worked with local partners and decided to start Her Yerde Sanat in 2012.

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After Demiral went to Belgium for circus training in 2013, she founded Sirkhane, Turkey’s first social circus school. Since July 2014, thousands of children from Mardin, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq have participated in circus classes at Sirkhane. The main goal of Her Yerde Sanat and Sirkhane is to help children affected by war to work through their past traumas and find some happiness.

“Children have a right to live and be happy. They need a place where they can be kids,” says Demiral. “Violence is forbidden here because we’re trying to end violence in the world. We want the kids to make new friends without fighting or hurting each other. We want them to learn to perform in a peaceful place.”

Demiral’s colleague and head of the Her Yerde Sanat Foundation Serdal Adam explains the phrase "her yerde" (everywhere) in the foundation’s name.

“We didn’t want to be limited by the boundaries of any one place. We thought we should bring something to the villages and places where children already play. We’ve always been very mobile,” he says.

 

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Demiral points out that everything the foundation does is to heal children.

“Circus, art, music… these are all vehicles for us. In 2014, groups of people escaping Iraq, Sinjar, and ISIS came to Mardin and set up a camp at the bus station. Around that time, we organized our first social circus festival. There were around 80 circus arts trainers from 20 different countries in Mardin then. For 25 days at that camp, we got about 80 people to join our programme. We started doing activities there every day,’’ he notes.

Demiral, describing how the trainings are carried out, says:

“We give lessons at the Sirkhanes in central Mardin, İstasyon, and Nusaybin, and we have shuttle buses to bring in children from the surrounding areas. With local and volunteer instructors, the kids learn all kinds of circus acts like acrobatics, aerial acrobatics, juggling and spinning various objects, walking on stilts, and sleight of hand. We also offer workshops in drawing, music, and drama. This is all for the children’s mental and physical development. Kids who look at their accomplishments after telling themselves they couldn’t do it will have a lifetime of confidence. For example, let’s say a child successfully learns to walk on stilts. When she does this, she sees how proud everyone is of her. Also, she learned a skill with the support of her peers, and she learned to take risks in a safe place. This is how we’re supporting children’s healthy growth.”

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Demiral says the families in Mardin trust them with their children.

“Sometimes the families in remote areas don’t want to send their children because they don’t know what sort of place this is or what we’re doing here. Perhaps the kids convince their parents to let them come. The immigrant families and those living in the camp are more than happy to send us their kids because they’ve seen the changes in them and realize this adds value to their children’s lives. It’s a source of hope for them,” he explains.

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However, Demiral and Adam are quite realistic about what they are doing for these kids.

“Today in Mardin, there are thousands of refugee children from Syria and Iraq living inside and outside of the camps. They’re still dealing with their trauma while at the same time, they’re struggling to make a new life and learn a new language and culture. Inside the camps, there’s hardly anything for kids to do. Refugees living outside the camps face more and more discrimination,’’ Demiral says, adding, ‘’For people who are forced to live together, for societies that have to integrate, a positive environment is needed to share experiences and fight prejudice. As Ghandi said, if we want to bring true peace to this world and really end wars, we have to start with the children.”

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They’re watching this all play out in real life because they’re holding activities in refugee camps, where children are walking on stilts and learning other circus skills. Those kids then organize trainings and shows on their own, which makes the other kids in the camp happy.

Refugees can also work at Sirkhane.

Ebu Kalhed, a former professor and Assad supporter who fled Syria four years ago with his wife and two children, now has teaching and training duties at the school.

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Mustafa, also Syrian, is both a student and teacher at Her Yerde Sanat.

Siblings Diyar and Şiyar are getting really good at sleight of hand.

Fifteen-year-old refugee Khaled Kasim now shares what he’s learned with new arrivals.

“At first I didn’t take the school too seriously,” he says. “I didn’t feel ready for something like this. Then one day a friend told me that a lot of wonderful things were happening here, and I decided to give it a try. I haven’t left the school since,’’ Kasim explains.

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In 2018, 150 children received training at Sirkhane, and over 1,000 children joined workshops throughout the greater Mardin region. With separate programmes for summer and winter, Sirkhane is not just raising young circus artists—thanks to the foundation, over 10,000 children have had the opportunity to see a circus performance.

However, the most important feature of Sirkhane is that they depend entirely on volunteers, and all of their services are free of charge.