When Mohammad “Abu Qasem” Qusam Ghouzlan arrived with his family at the Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan from his home of Syria, he thought he would be staying just a few days.
Two and a half years later, it turned out that was not the case, but Ghouzlan has found a creative outlet to help him and others keep busy and stay positive as they look ahead to their futures beyond their time living in what has been called the Middle East’s largest refugee camp.
Fascinated with the circus from a young age, Ghouzlan got involved as soon as he learned of a circus school being operated at the camp by the Finnish nonprofit Sirkus Magenta as part of Finn Church Aid’s humanitarian work there. The camp was founded in 2013 and was featured this week as part of the United Nations' World Humanitarian Day.
"It gives them hope of getting back and getting back to Syria," Sirkus Magenta's Topi Hurtig, told Yle, a Finnish news source, earlier this year, "and when they do, it will help them to rebuild their country."
The Finnish group supervised his training as he worked hard to master circus skills, working up to six hours a day in the beginning, until he was finally designated one of the camp’s trainers.
Today, Ghouzlan leads classes of children through circus exercises, starting with a warmup session, some “free time” and learning about circus “laws” and how to show respect to their colleagues and trainers. Finally, they practice circus movements. An average lesson, Ghouzlan said, lasts about an hour and 45 minutes.
While the students are passionate about learning new movements and techniques -- such as aerial movement, a particularly tricky skill set he teaches -- they take much more away from the classes than just that.
“It’s a convenient place to teach students to have respect for others, to never underestimate their abilities and to give others support and encouragement inside and outside circus school trainings,” Ghouzlan told The Huffington Post via email.
Ghouzlan has noticed participants leave classes with a much more positive attitude about themselves and a mutual respect they have toward their classmates as they've unloaded some of their stress and trauma from the day.
He said the classes also help participants stay healthy and steer clear of temptations like getting involved with violence, smoking or other unfavorable activities. In addition, it helps them improve their level of focus when it comes to their classroom studies.
Those results, Ghouzlan says, have not gone unnoticed in the camp.
“The circus school was socially unacceptable in its early start, was called a waste of time and an effortless activity, but now it’s accepted,” Ghouzlan said. “I am now glad to say that this view has changed from negative to positive, and we have a remarkable support from both students and people in Za'atari camp.”
In the future, Ghouzlan is hopeful that he will be able to establish a circus school inside Syria and that he will be able to perform both inside and outside his home country.
“There is no Syrian circus and there is no doubt that it will be something new for the Syrian community to explore and enjoy,” he added.
The Za’atari school is not the first of its kind to be born out of a conflict zone. In 2006, the Palestinian Circus School was founded in the West Bank as the result of a partnership between a Palestinian performer and a Belgian aid worker. The school continued to grow in popularity and today has a permanent home in Birzeit.
In addition, Sirkus Magenta has also helped establish circus programs in Mexico, Afghanistan and Turkey.