Handstands on the Road

Social Circus in Mardin part II – Of Festivals, Food Poisoning and the Worth of NGO Work

Hi there!

Now let’s at least try to conclude the summer tales before the first snow falls – maybe it already has where you are, but let me assure you that even though I travelled further north and am currently in Stockholm, the white powder has not yet made an appearance in this year’s story!

An early winter sky over Djursholm just outside of Stockholm where I am right now

More about Stockholm and all the other stops in between another time, here’s for you to catch up. I will split the remainder of the social circus summer in Turkey into four parts so that they remain fun and readable.


Back to Mardin… we’re writing the last week of September 2018

Now where I had last left you, our fabulous volunteers from the Viktor Kee Foundation had just arrived in time for Sirkhane‘s annual Circus Festival and, of course, my birthday!

The opening parade of the Circus Festival 2018 in Istasyon – credit for this picture goes to the Sirkhane Instagram @sirkhane

To be honest, I was pretty excited that the opening day of the festival this year would fall on the exact date of my birthday, the 30th of September, and I was equally stoked to be performing aerial silks at the opening and throughout the festival, rigged from a fire truck (the ceiling height in the Sirkhane centres may be sufficient for teaching, but less so for an act with big drops in it.)

Not quite a truck to rig from, but still a neat vehicle for a parade! This picture belongs to Sirkhane

Unfortunately, about a week before the festival, I was informed that there would be no opportunity for the kids or myself to be performing on any aerial apparatus as we did not get the all-clear from the firefighters this time. A little disappointed, I tried to see the positives, such as facing less pressure in terms of creating a choreography with the kids – which was pretty much impossible since I spent the majority of my time trying to keep the order during class and go over individual tricks again and again with ever changing groups of kids – as well as no longer having to find the time and space to train and polish my own act.

Stilts were one of the props that the kids would ALWAYS get excited about – this picture belongs to Sirkhane

And after the tears (mostly from the kids, not so much the volunteers, but trust me, we, too, came close at times…), the sweat, the endless preparations, opening day came and with it my birthday. And as the decorations went up and the excitement rose, so did a nagging feeling of nausea. What started as a subtle stomach ache in the morning soon caused me to get rid of my breakfast and quite possibly the preceding dinner while anxious little humans dressed up, running and shouting, trying out every musical instrument they could get a hold of and wondering why I lay spread out on two chairs in the teacher’s room instead of cheering them on. Stubbornly refusing to return to the guest house and missing out on the fun on. my. birthday., this carried on for an hour or two, but the opening parade wasn’t due until children from the Nusaybin centre would arrive at Istasyon, a good 40 minute drive with our minibus, in the afternoon… and right as the bus pulled up in front of the centre, carrying easily a few more dozens of children, I had finally decided that my presence didn’t help anyone – I put a dampener on the kids’ mood and my own, while not aiding my recovery either.

That opening parade I missed – this picture belongs to Sirkhane

The 20 minute drive to the guest house on the cobbled roads of the old town was decidedly longer than it had been a few hours prior, and it was all I could do not to puke while inside the vehicle. Needless to say that food poisoning wasn’t exactly what I had wanted for presents this year, but I couldn’t help but crack a wan smile when my colleagues returned in the evening, juggling, dancing with puppets and bringing stories, coffee and cards to my makeshift bed in the common area.

A day later, we celebrated my birthday for real on the rooftop of the local Sinek café – thanks to @iamjuggling for the picture!

There is something about this kind of volunteer social work that creates some form of kinship, and the other volunteers and I shared some really special moments and common sentiments throughout my time there. Yes, there were the happy moments, the festival parades, the successful classes and the impromptu jams, but there were also the doubts and it was good to know that we all had them.

Cynics may disregard volunteering abroad, especially in areas that may still be regarded as politically unstable as per questionable media coverage from two years ago, as nothing but boastful ego-massage while adding some sense of “adventure” to one’s Instagram travel snaps… and while I have met many keen travellers in Mardin and count myself among them, there is no doubt that all of us also wanted to contribute something positive to those kids’ lives. And some days, that seemed like a logistical impossibility.

Putting smiles on children’s faces at the 8th annual circus festival in Mardin – this picture belongs to Sirkhane

There were days were most of us were simply frustrated by the communication (or lack thereof) with the management, within the management and with third parties. There were days when we had agreed a meeting time and place, and were called half an hour before the designated time, questioning us as to why we hadn’t shown up another half hour prior. There were days when we were called to arrive early, only to be left standing at the last minute. There were days when the centres we were assigned to were inexplicably closed. And then there were days when shows were cancelled, due to the political relevance of the colour of the parachute we wanted to use for games with the children. While things weren’t always perfect, I have a huge respect for everyone working at Sirkhane long-term, because it is so easy to question the value of this work on the frustrating days, the days that are lost in translation and bureaucracy or trying to coordinate kids without a clear vision, thus making them all the more irritable and much harder to inspire.

Never forget about the days that make it all worthwhile, like this one – this picture belongs to Sirkhane

I’m not going to lie, when two full days of shows were cancelled during the festival for our parachute displaying “Kurdish colours,” the morale of many team members was low. There was festival week in full swing and if you hadn’t known, you wouldn’t have noticed, because we were having one day off after another, and the only thing that came even close to helping was talking, talking to each other about the questions spinning around in our heads: What am I doing here? Is my work, my contribution, making any difference at all? Can it?

While some days the answers to those questions seemed to get lost in a WhatsApp group fight over silly details, swallowed by the dust clouding the sky, other days, they resound loudly from the desert.

YES WE MAKE A DIFFERENCE – this picture belongs to Sirkhane

The next article about doing rest days the Turkish way is already written and will appear here uncharacteristically soon, so stay tuned!




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