Circus becomes family for displaced Afghan children

Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2014

KABUL, Afghanistan — The greatest show in Afghanistan is not your conventional circus.

“Some organizations are working with food,” said Mobile Mini Circus for Children employee Fardin Barakzai. “Some are working with education. We are working with fun and smiles.”

He grinned. “Life is easier in Afghanistan if you start with a smile.”

But smiles are sometimes difficult to find, especially among the orphaned youth and other displaced children of Afghanistan, a country that has been torn by war for more than 30 years. Founded in 2002 and based in Kabul, the capital, the Mobile Mini Circus for Children has since expanded to reach more than 2.7 million children across 25 provinces. Through orphanage partnerships and programs in seven Afghan provinces and Kabul-area Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, the circus aims to provide often-absent smiles for Afghan youth. Recently, the circus held its second annual National Circus Festival in the capital, featuring more than 35 events, including open air performances, parades and fire shows.

Twenty-year-old Barakzai became involved with the circus when he was 7 years old. At the time, he was selling trinkets on the streets of Kabul to help his family scrape by. He started participating in circus workshops and hasn’t left the circus since.

“This is my identity,” he said, pointing at the word “Circus” written in the Dari language on his T-shirt. “All I have are two trousers and many colors of this T-shirt. This is enough for me.”

Barakzai now works for the circus. He allowed a reporter to tag along with him on one day of visiting Internally Displaced Person camps, which shelter people who are driven from their homes but remain in the same nation. We bounced along the perilous dust and traffic-clogged roads of Kabul in a beat-up silver pickup truck as he told the story of Afghanistan’s only circus.

“The face of Afghanistan is so much changed since the circus started,” Barakzai said. When the Mobile Mini Circus for Children was established in 2002, the year after the fall of the Taliban, many Afghans disapproved of circus activities. When it first came to IDP camps, where families often live without basic necessities, running water, or electricity, many people had never heard of a circus.

“Now slowly, Afghanistan is accepting that a circus is something good for Afghan children,” he said.

At the Kabul headquarters, the circus runs a year-round 120-student training center, where students learn performance skills including juggling, unicycling and acrobatics. The circus doesn’t charge students for classes — instead, it relies for funding on embassy, foundation and individual donors — and often attracts children who might otherwise be in the streets. Through a media program at the Kabul headquarters, children produce and screen their own films and learn photography, radio, and video skills. In the IDP camps, circus workshops often provide some of the only color — literal and figurative — in children’s lives, and they serve as an escape from the grim reality of living in war zone.

Barakzai emphasized that the circus’s IDP programs aren’t just about performance, but about mind and behavior as well.

“Yes, we teach them juggling,” he said. “But we also teach them how to eat, how to sit, how to not fight. The circus really changes the camp. Slowly, they are learning the value of each other.”

He turned the pickup onto a trail leading to rows of gray camp tents. A heavy cloud of dirt spun around the truck.

“If you have shiny things, then a camp is not a camp,” he said, observing the drab scene. “But color,” he nodded, “we can still have a camp with color.”

“Funtainers” – brightly colored shipping containers that serve as yearlong camp circus headquarters – bring that color to 14 dusty IDP camps in the Kabul area. And despite the monochromatic tents and thick layer of grime, there is some figurative shine in the camps, as well. The circus runs its camp programs on a “Taban” system.

In the Dari language, Taban translates to “sunlight.” It’s a youth-teaching-youth system: The 35 to 40 Taban team members are young camp residents who have gone through circus programs themselves, and have been given the responsibility of training younger performers. Taban team members serve as role models as they teach children acrobatics and juggling with tennis balls and handmade juggling pins fashioned from taped Coca Cola bottles, old tennis balls, and sticks.

The Taban teams’ weekly social circus workshops have changed the lives of many camp children.

Sametaull, 16, is one of these children. He sat in the shade of the Qalawazi camp’s “funtainer” as he told his story. A known troublemaker in the camp until he became involved with the circus when it first came to Qalawazi a year ago, he is now a member of the camp’s Taban team.

“I was not good at school,” he said of his time before becoming involved with the circus. “Juggling with the circus, I learned slowly to control one ball, then two balls, then three balls. Then other things, like my mind.” Sametaull gestured at the group of 30 camp children juggling and practicing flips on the funtainer mats. “My identity is the Taban. For me, the circus means stopping fighting.”

Fardin took a break from translating to make a comment of his own. “People ask me how many brothers and sisters I have,” he said, putting his arm around Sametaull. “I say more than 1,000.”

Another camp resident, 8-year-old Narset, said the circus means education for him. “Someday, I want to be a circus performer,” he said. “I can juggle four balls, want to see?”

“You already are a circus performer,” Sametaull pointed out.

Sametaull stood up to facilitate the camp’s weekly social circus workshop. After an hour of juggling, acrobatics, and human pyramids, he packed the brightly colored tennis balls into their burlap sacks and swung closed the doors of the camp’s funtainer.

Fardin started up the pickup and pulled away from the group of waving children. The show must, of course, go on. But as the silver pickup made its way back to Kabul and the bright colors of the camp funtainer shone in the hot afternoon sun, Narset picked up four pebbles and started to juggle.

Clearly, the truck left in its wake more than just a thick cloud of dust.

To learn more about the Mobile Mini Circus for Children and their activities in Afghanistan, visit

Rianna Starheim is a student at Dartmouth College.


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