Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

Meet two women run­ning a cir­cus of hope in Kath­mandu, Nepal.

Friday - - CONTENTS - If you would like to know more about Cir­cus Kath­mandu, visit www.cir­cuskath­mandu.com

A group of Nepalese youths who were stolen from their homes and put through ter­ri­fy­ing or­deals in ‘cir­cus-pris­ons’ have learnt, since their res­cue, to use their artis­tic skills to be­come stars of the global cir­cus world. Anthea Ay­ache meets the founders of Cir­cus Kath­mandu

The lights shone brightly on to the saw­dust cir­cus floor, pre­vent­ing Bina* from see­ing the au­di­ence. Gin­gerly, she stepped out in her shabby pink, se­quined leo­tard, a far cry from the “new clothes of the stars” she had been promised when lured away from her home in Nepal across the bor­der into In­dia. In a for­eign land, far from any­one she knew or loved and harshly beaten into learn­ing dan­ger­ous and dif­fi­cult cir­cus tricks, Bina felt her body trem­ble un­con­trol­lably un­der the un­for­giv­ing glare of her cir­cus mas­ter.

Just 13 years old, Bina felt an overwhelming urge to cry, but she knew tears would be in vain and ul­ti­mately would only lead to more phys­i­cal pain from her cap­tors. In­stead, she shut her eyes, in­haled to calm her nerves and el­e­gantly be­gan the one-hour dar­ing per­for­mance she had been re­hears­ing from dusk to dawn for months. See­ing the fam­i­lies in the au­di­ence, she pushed aside thoughts of her own par­ents and her feel­ings of aban­don­ment and con­fu­sion, and fo­cused all her ef­forts on be­ing the child en­ter­tainer she had been forced to be­come.

Bina’s story is one that res­onates for hun­dreds of Nepalese chil­dren traf­ficked ev­ery year over the bor­der and en­slaved in In­dian cir­cuses. Preyed upon by traf­fick­ers in poor ru­ral vil­lages, chil­dren as young as five are sold by par­ents who be­lieve they are of­fer­ing their chil­dren a bet­ter life.

“The whole is­sue of fam­i­lies sell­ing their chil­dren is a very com­pli­cated one,” says Sky Neal, co­founder of Cir­cus Kath­mandu (CK), Nepal’s first and only con­tem­po­rary cir­cus com­pany com­pris­ing young people who have been res­cued from hu­man traf­fick­ing and other vul­ner­a­ble sit­u­a­tions. “It’s also a very mis­un­der­stood one.

“I have met quite a few fam­i­lies and of­ten they are un­e­d­u­cated and poor, and the traf­fick­ers are very of­ten tied in through fam­ily links, caste or eth­nic­ity. They prey on these very vul­ner­a­ble fam­i­lies and give the young people ideas that they are go­ing off to a much bet­ter life where they are go­ing to get an ed­u­ca­tion, new clothes and huge op­por­tu­ni­ties. So, of­ten when these fam­i­lies sell their chil­dren they gen­uinely be­lieve they are giv­ing them a bet­ter life.”

But once they are taken far away from their fam­i­lies, the chil­dren are of­ten beaten, abused and held cap­tive in some of In­dia’s 100 or more cir­cuses, of which only 12 are reg­is­tered with the In­dian Cir­cus Fed­er­a­tion. With no chance of es­cape they are forced to learn a mul­ti­tude of tricks, in­clud­ing Starkiss – a cruel per­for­mance where the en­ter­tainer is lifted up in the air by a rope to which they are at­tached by their teeth.

Asked why In­dian cir­cuses pre­fer Nepalese girls, Child­line In­dia’s Ko­mal Ganotra told Hu­man­goods.net, a web­site that dis­cusses traf­fick­ing is­sues, “Some cir­cus own­ers have said… that ge­net­i­cally the Nepalese have a very flex­i­ble body to per­form, so they pre­fer those chil­dren… [and] the girls from Nepal are con­sid­ered to be more ex­otic.”

And they are easy prey in im­pov­er­ished ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties where aware­ness-rais­ing mes­sages have not yet fil­tered in. Here, chil­dren are en­ticed with en­chant­ing tales of a glam­orous new life and are sold for as lit­tle as Nepalese Rs1,000 (Dh38), the fam­i­lies rarely re­ceiv­ing the money.

“They’re told they will be dress­ing like movie stars,” says Robyn Simp­son, who co-founded CK with Sky, “and they will see tall build­ings and cities and that they will lead ex­cit­ing in­ter­na­tional lives. When they were traf­ficked those claims were all lies but through Cir­cus Kath­mandu, those dreams are fi­nally com­ing true.”

Cir­cus Kath­mandu was formed in 2011 in Nepal with the sup­port of FSI. A UKbased char­ity with of­fices in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Tow­ers, FSI com­bats hu­man traf­fick­ing and bonded labour in Nepal and last year won the End Hu­man Traf­fick­ing Now Award at the­World Eco­nomic Fo­rum in Davos. On hear­ing about the refuge FSI was of­fer­ing to res­cued re­turnees from In­dian cir­cuses, Sky, a pro­ducer and di­rec­tor within both film arts and cir­cus for in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned names such as Al Jazeera In­ter­na­tional and BBC, de­cided to vol­un­tar­ily lend her skills to the

In ar­eas of ex­treme poverty in Nepal, chil­dren are sold for as lit­tle as Rs1,000 (Dh38)

Kath­mandu Refuge, a home in Nepal’s cap­i­tal that cares for dis­placed chil­dren.

Help­ing the chil­dren, teenagers and young adults to use skills that had been ac­quired through abuse in hos­tile en­vi­ron­ments was never go­ing to be an easy feat. But with the right ap­proach, the right sup­port net­work and the right teach­ing meth­ods to en­able the use of skills as a psy­cho­log­i­cal heal­ing tool, Sky set forth with the task.

“It was three-and-a-half years ago when I ten­ta­tively went to vol­un­teer with the refuge,” she says, “and that’s where a lot of the cir­cus re­turnees [the term used for chil­dren who have been traf­ficked and re­turned back to their home­land and/or fam­i­lies] were. I gen­tly started in­tro­duc­ing games and cir­cus-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties to both – those who were cir­cus refugees and those who weren’t.”

Sky was able to con­vince some of the more re­luc­tant kids to join in and see­ing their po­ten­tial and skills, de­cided to utilise it to help them. She was joined a few months later by Robyn, also an in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed aerial, dance and cir­cus chore­og­ra­pher and per­former spe­cial­is­ing in high-qual­ity large-

scale pro­duc­tions, in­clud­ing this year’s Sochi Win­ter Olympics and Lon­don’s 2012 Olympics. With their skill set and the grow­ing pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the troupe, the pair slowly be­gan to set up a full-time so­cial cir­cus course for the chil­dren of the refuge.

Says Sky, “Over the course of a few weeks we ran a so­cial cir­cus project for 25 kids, which was very much based on the ther­a­peu­tic use of theatre and cir­cus. It was a very gen­tle process and we used a lot of trust games where the per­form­ers would have to rely on one an­other to achieve their acts. We also had lots of fun and silly ac­tiv­i­ties that al­lowed them as chil­dren to use their own cre­ativ­ity within per­form­ing arts, some­thing they had never done in their pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ences.”

Hav­ing been held cap­tive and forced to learn rote rou­tines un­der the threat of in­jury – in some cases a child would be re­quired to stitch up their own wounds, sus­tained when fall­ing off bikes or from a height for in­stance – many of the chil­dren had scant idea of how to use their imag­i­na­tion within per­form­ing arts.

“They had pre­vi­ously been in­structed to per­form so it was some­thing they just car­ried out me­chan­i­cally,” ex­plains Robyn. “When we first started work­ing with them it was a lit­tle like work­ing with ro­bots rather than the en­er­getic, won­der­ful, en­thu­si­as­tic young people that they are to­day. The real chal­lenge at that time was to give them enough con­fi­dence and to make them feel safe enough to ex­plore and to carry out an idea with­out be­ing in­structed on what to do and how to do it.

“There were a mul­ti­tude of chal­lenges,” says Robyn. “Get­ting them to work as a team was one. They were 25 in­di­vid­u­als who looked af­ter them­selves so we trained them to work to­gether through games like lift­ing each other up, shar­ing cir­cus ma­te­ri­als and props and sud­denly putting them in po­si­tions where they had to rely on each other and build trust. That played a re­ally sub­stan­tial role be­cause with­out re­al­is­ing, they were let­ting each other in.”

The mo­ti­va­tion for this course was to al­low the chil­dren to use skills ac­quired neg­a­tively and trans­late them into some­thing pos­i­tive, and their con­fi­dence and tal­ents grew. Sky and Robyn then asked them if they would con­sider a live per­for­mance. Sur­pris­ingly many came for­ward, proud of their new­found self-as­sur­ance, and af­ter an out­stand­ing first per­for­mance in Kath­mandu, which gar­nered a stand­ing ova­tion, it be­gan to dawn on the pair that per­haps there was more they could of­fer these dam­aged, dis­placed chil­dren.

“It re­ally was a great month for break­ing bar­ri­ers with 25 young people,” says Sky. “And from that point it oc­curred to us that this could be­come some­thing else. We saw the im­pact that it had, par­tic­u­larly on those young adults who had been traf­ficked in cir­cuses; they were con­fi­dent and pos­i­tively glow­ing at the end of the show and you could see the trans­for­ma­tion from think­ing ‘I am some­one who has been traf­ficked and stig­ma­tised’ to some­one who thinks ‘I have amaz­ing skills that are world recog­nised’.”

Cir­cus in Nepal re­mains largely an an­ti­quated in­dus­try that is shunned and mis­un­der­stood by the gen­eral pub­lic. Many Nepalese have lit­tle idea of the in­dus­try’s trans­for­ma­tion from Big Top troupes of the 1980s to a con­tem­po­rary form of art recog­nised and re­spected the world over.

Com­pared with tra­di­tional cir­cuses with heavy re­liance on clowns, trained an­i­mals, ac­ro­bats and stunt artists, con­tem­po­rary cir­cuses fo­cuses on the over­all aes­thetic de­tail along­side char­ac­ter and story de­vel­op­ment – a very new con­cept to the traf­ficked young adults in Kath­mandu and Nepalese au­di­ences.

“I think there was a very sig­nif­i­cant turn­ing point when they were in­tro­duced to some­one who was a cir­cus pro­fes­sional from theWest,” says Sky. “It was a turn­ing point es­pe­cially for the girls who had re­ally only seen it as a lonely, stig­ma­tised pro­fes­sion. When I showed them videos and ex­plained that ac­tu­ally there was this in­cred­i­ble world­wide in­dus­try and they be­gan to re­alise that they pos­sessed skills that are recog­nised in the rest of the world, there was a sig­nif­i­cant change in their per­cep­tion.”

With the suc­cess of the one-off per­for­mance in Kath­mandu, the two women de­cided to of­fer per­form­ers from the first show a chance to take up cir­cus as a vo­ca­tional train­ing project. It was from this point that Robyn and Sky be­gan a jour­ney that to­day is Cir­cus Kath­mandu. With 13 youths of­fi­cially on board, the pair set about plan­ning and de­liv­er­ing

a pro­gramme to train the chil­dren to cre­atively per­form myth­i­cal Nepalese sto­ries through a fu­sion of cir­cus, theatre and dance.

Most of the kids, be­cause they had missed out on school and lacked any vo­ca­tional train­ing, had very few op­tions for what they could do, says Robyn. “Fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion and work op­por­tu­ni­ties were very limited for them. It meant they were uniquely vul­ner­a­ble to be­ing traf­ficked again or fall­ing into bonded labour.”

Of­ten the chil­dren were ei­ther re­luc­tant to re­turn home to par­ents who sent them away ini­tially for mea­gre sums of money, or were no longer wel­come in their homes and vil­lages due to the stigma of hav­ing been traf­ficked.

Even for those who do re­turn home, hav­ing missed years of ed­u­ca­tion while in cap­tiv­ity, the chances of re­turn­ing to school are slim, and bonded labour in for­eign coun­tries is of­ten an only op­tion.

“We knew they had the po­ten­tial to be­come in­ter­na­tional per­form­ers and we recog­nised they had the skills to help set up the in­dus­try in Nepal and tap into po­ten­tial Euro­pean mar­kets. We wanted to of­fer them a pack­age that could de­ter­mine their fu­ture and their jobs un­der their own terms,” says Sky.

Over the next three years Sky and Robyn made CK a pro­fes­sional cir­cus com­pany with the help of vol­un­teer train­ers on the ground in Nepal. Work­ing closely with the small group, the pair over­saw the tech­ni­cal, cre­ative and ed­u­ca­tion de­vel­op­ment, strate­gic plan­ning and en­sured that the shows were con­sis­tently of high qual­ity.

The pair kept their jobs in the UK in or­der to con­tinue fund­ing and fundrais­ing for the projects and trav­elled reg­u­larly be­tween the two coun­tries, leav­ing the new­found troupe in the ca­pa­ble hands of refuge staff and trained cir­cus pro­fes­sion­als from Kath­mandu.

“What we started off with in Nepal was an en­vi­ron­ment that didn’t recog­nise cir­cus as a pos­i­tive in­dus­try,” ex­plains Sky. “So now it’s re­ally ex­cit­ing that we’re be­gin­ning to see that hap­pen; the cor­po­rate in­dus­try is re­ally be­gin­ning to pay at­ten­tion to CK and we have events com­ing up like Nepal Fash­ionWeek and per­for­mances for events runs by multi­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions.”

Says Robyn: “We started off in an en­vi­ron­ment where the kids were em­bar­rassed to say they were in­volved in cir­cus. At the end of last year we per­formed at a large con­fer­ence at­tended by some of the world’s rich­est en­trepreneurs and the for­mer Prime Min­is­ter of Nepal. Sud­denly these 13 kids who had been so scared of talk­ing about their cir­cus back­ground were proud to be per­form­ing at this in­cred­i­bly high pro­file event and a month later they per­formed on na­tional TV. ”

Early this year, CK made the tran­si­tion to in­ter­na­tional per­for­mances and held two out­stand­ing shows at the Dubai Bri­tish School in the Springs Com­mu­nity, per­for­mances that were spon­sored by UK char­ity Free­dom Mat­ters, and that were able to raise Dh25,000 to­wards pre­vent­ing more chil­dren from fall­ing into the hands of traf­fick­ers in Nepal.

“The re­cep­tion from the Dubai au­di­ence had such an im­pact on their con­fi­dence,” says Sky. “They felt the im­pres­sion they made. It was very ob­vi­ously a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone and since then they are all post­ing on Face­book about their pro­fes­sion and are proud of what they’re do­ing.”

Sky and Robyn are cur­rently in­ves­ti­gat­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of hold­ing more daz­zling spec­ta­cles at the In­ter­na­tional Cir­cus Fes­ti­val in Nor­way this sum­mer. They’ve had an in­vi­ta­tion to per­form in the Theatre and Cir­cus ar­eas at the Glas­ton­bury Fes­ti­val in the UK next week. They’re also look­ing to hold more per­for­mances in Dubai, the place that marked their first foray into the in­ter­na­tional cir­cus cir­cuit.

Mean­while, the 13 mem­bers are fo­cus­ing on stamp­ing out the traf­fick­ing is­sue in Nepal. With out­reach pro­grammes ex­tend­ing to ru­ral vil­lages across the coun­try, the youths are to­day warn­ing oth­ers of the per­ils of hu­man traf­fick­ing.

Says Sky, “They take pow­er­ful aware­ness rais­ing cam­paigns to vil­lages and deliver a show and so­cial cir­cus-based work­shops where they work with young people and fam­i­lies to raise aware­ness and em­power people to know where to go for help and where to re­port traf­fick­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.”

Says Robyn, “It also re­ally helps them deal with their own trauma be­cause as kids in Nepal they have very lit­tle ac­cess to ther­apy so be­ing able to make sense or have a pur­pose for their own past in help­ing pre­vent oth­ers un­dergo what they did is a re­ally pos­i­tive way of man­ag­ing their his­to­ries.

“Now they are stand­ing tall, they are vi­brant, en­gaged young people who have self-con­fi­dence, live on their own and send money back to their fam­i­lies. Its great to see them do­ing what any young per­son around the world should be do­ing.”

As Sky says, “They are liv­ing the dream now that they were un­fairly sold when they were traf­ficked.” And who more de­serv­ing than these tal­ented young stars such as Bina who to­day is liv­ing with her fam­ily, stand­ing on her own two feet and earn­ing money to sup­port her­self and her sib­lings. Proof that with the right sup­port, ded­i­ca­tion and care, any­one can be­come an in­ter­na­tional star no mat­ter their back­ground.”

‘We started off in an en­vi­ron­ment where the kids were em­bar­rassed to say they were in cir­cus’

CK trains cir­cus re­turnees pro­fes­sion­ally

Sky Neal

Robyn Simp­son

Get­ting the kids to work as a team was a ma­jor chal­lenge

CK helps chil­dren to use the skills they have learnt in a pos­i­tive way

CK has staged per­for­mances in Nepal and Dubai

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