MARDIN, Turkey – This ancient city, only 60 miles (100km) from the border with Syria, has become a refuge for those fleeing the war-ravaged nation. Many Syrians simply walk here from their devastated hometowns, drawn by Turkey’s generous asylum policy.
At 2.8 million, Turkey’s Syrian refugee population is the largest in the world, and the country is feeling the strain of trying to integrate its new arrivals. According to Human Rights Watch, there are over 700,000 school-age Syrian children in Turkey, but more than half don’t attend school. One main barrier is language. Turkish schools don’t have a Arabic curriculum, leaving hundreds of thousands of refugee children with gaps in their education.
In addition to missing out on schooling, many Syrian refugee girls and women in Turkey experience debilitating social isolation as they often stay at home to take care of domestic duties.
One Mardin-based organization thinks it has found a way to tackle both the language issue and the social isolation that hold Syrian refugee women back from being actively involved in their new communities: circus skills.
With the help of international volunteers, the Anywhere Association is training young Syrian refugees to be circus performers. Based on the idea of learning through play, the boys and girls are trained in skills such as stilt walking, tightrope walking and juggling. Whenever they put on performances for the public, they find they can connect with their Turkish neighbors through laughter.
Once the young Syrians perfect their circus skills, they take over the training and teach those skills to other young refugees.
Lava Kasim, 20, pictured above in the brown jacket, has been attending circus classes for almost a year, and says walking on the stilts is her favorite activity. Since she started the classes “the length of the stilts have been getting longer and longer,” she says, with a proud smile.
Originally hailing from Hasaka, Syria, Dersim Chechan, 18, has been living in Mardin with her family for four years.
When she and her fellow circus students performed their skills in front of people, Chechan says it was one of the most exciting moments of her life. “The best thing about having these circus skills is to be able to put a smile on someone’s face,” she says. “The children who live here have been through a lot, and it’s very rewarding to make them smile.”
Although they are both from Hasaka, Checan and Kasim met at the circus school and quickly became good friends.
“I didn’t know anyone in Mardin before starting here,” says Kasim, adding that she had experienced social isolation and discrimination in Turkey. Through the circus school, she has begun to settle into her new home. But, at times, she says, Syrians are still treated like outsiders.
“I am happy to be in Turkey, because we are safe here,” she says. “But it’s not easy living here. We don’t know anyone here, and Syrians always get the worst jobs and worst salaries.”
Kasim says she loves working with children and dreams of being an English teacher one day. But, due to the challenge of entering a Turkish university as a Syrian refugee, she’s not sure it will ever happen. Even so, she is hopeful about her future.
“If I cannot become an English teacher, I want to be a circus teacher and teach children these skills instead,” she says. “I want to go back to Syria one day once the fighting stops and start a circus school there. Children of Syria need to laugh more than anyone.”