CWB in Istanbul: playful workshops, ‘safe spaces’, and a coup

Magenta’s nominated charity Clowns Without Borders has been supporting Syrian children in Turkey. Volunteer clown Katharine James shares her experience:

13680557_1035959299825699_8342095453694744528_nFor 10 days my fellow clown Annabel and I were in Istanbul, running playful workshops with Syrian children and taking part in a training session for volunteers from Small Projects Istanbul (SPI), our partner organisation.

SPI is a grassroots charity based in Fatih who, as well as operating this thriving community space, fundraises to provide direct financial assistance to families so that their children are able to attend school, instead of having to work in factories. The project is also being run in collaboration with Ilaf, a local Syrian school.

We ran three sessions per day and worked with around 60 children, aged five to 13. The primary aim of the workshops was to create a ‘safe space’, a space in which the children could relax, express themselves, build confidence, build relationships, learn, laugh, and have fun.

13620069_1035948373160125_3933608622404393676_nDuring the first evening we spoke to a young SPI volunteer from Iraq, he said that the trauma of growing up during the war was still with him – as it was for countless others – every day. He told us: “People really need this. People need to be able to release”.

At Ilaf, our translator Lina, whose father runs the school, was incredible – in spirit and in skill. She had a wonderful, playful energy and an instinctive feeling for the work.

Lina told us that it was tough for her to know that these children will grow up without many of the opportunities she had. She said that many people are suffering from depression; that a lot of parents haven’t the will or energy to play with their children or create clear boundaries. The war has shattered families. Emotionally. Physically. A lot of the men have stayed in Syria. A lot of marriages can’t take the strain. People are broken.

13620109_1035951996493096_4416191200240625843_nWorking with the children every day, we got to know the; we saw them change, growing in confidence. They behaved with kindness, gentleness and generosity to each other and to us. They were full of excitement, energy, fun and love.  I learnt that staying present, open and energetic required plenty of rest and food; that the nightly team check-in was vital; that first and foremost you had to take care of yourself.

As our work progressed, it was important to start sharing responsibility and giving agency to the children. We wanted their input and to make sure that their voices were heard. With Lina’s help, we asked them what they enjoyed and we tried to reincorporate and extend those activities for the next day. We invited them to start leading some of the activities and by day six, they were actively asking to lead.

When we asked the children how they were finding the sessions, Mustafa put up his hand: “Every day we are waiting for this time.” Alaa, Lina’s sister, a psychologist who also helps out at the school, says:

Unknown-4I love what you are doing… I can see a difference in the children since they are coming here. One child usually never wants to play with other children but now he is playing and joining in. The children have asked their teachers to keep playing the games and doing these activities with them. They will because they see how good it is for them and they are learning too.

We asked the teachers if they would like to join the training session with the volunteers on the Sunday and, despite this being their only day off with their families, they were keen.

We didn’t make it to the new school. On July 15th there was an attempted military coup in Turkey.

13669090_1035948376493458_8854793105970146004_nThe night itself was surreal, we spend it inside, online, trying to find out what was going on. Machine gun fire and sonic booms from F16 fighter jets shook the city and everything was underscored by an unceasing call to prayer.

The following day was our day off. The coup attempt had failed but the FCO said the situation was still potentially volatile. Their advice was to stay indoors. We read endless news articles online, trying to piece together the story of what went on – what is going on – what will go on. The numbers of dead and wounded rose throughout the day. We made calls – checked that everyone here was okay.

Unknown-230 people showed up to the training workshop – we were amazed and delighted. There were teachers and volunteers from Ilaf, from SPI, and from two other centres downtown. We worked for four hours, combining discussion and psychosocial support theory with practical teaching of the songs and activities we’ve been using throughout the week.

Afterwards, everyone was energised and positive, and there was a sense of motivation and forward-looking. It felt like there was now a solid foundation for the work to continue and grow. In the buzz, I’d forgotten about the coup until we were instructed to leave the building in small groups so as not to draw attention to ourselves.

Unknown-3Leaving Istanbul the next morning, I was full of sadness. Sadness to leave the children, Shannon, Lina, the teachers and volunteers – all the friends we’ve made. I’m sad about the uncertainty of the future – both for Turkey and for the 2.7 million Syrians living within its borders.

But, I’m full of love as well. Love for everyone we’ve met and worked with – who committed so much of their own love, generosity, time and energy to make the work a success. Who inspired us daily: by being present; by not giving up; by being human.

Clowns Without Borders

Magenta Associates