Our 'Artist of the Week' post for this week is dedicated to the wild and wonderful Flying Seagulls Project- the travelling circus collective bringing smiles and laughter to thousands of kids living in some of the most precarious and deprived places in the world. I speak with some of the Flying Seagulls' European Team, and ask them about their work...
With over 65 million refugees worldwide and an average protracted displacement period now estimated at 26 years, entire generations of migrant children are growing up in host countries- very often, in the confines of migrant camps.
With insufficient funding and lack of infrastructure, camp life is hard. Every day, families struggle to find enough food and clean water to sustain themselves. With all the immediate concerns of survival, and a huge psychological burden of uncertainty, parents are often too preoccupied, and downright exhausted, to play with their children.
Tragically, only 50% of refugee children attend primary school and only 22% of adolescents go on to secondary education- this is damaging, not only from a socio-economic perspective, but also because it robs these kids of the chance to congregate in a safe, child-friendly environment, free from the malaise and hardship of normal camp life.
That is why initiatives such as The Flying Seagull Project provide such an important service- an escape from the daily grind of camp life- a small window of playful, uncomplicated fun- a safe place where children can let go, and just be children again.
I personally became aware of The Flying Seagull Project last year, after a BBC promo video posted on Facebook made them an instant viral hit.
I was so inspired by their work, and excited about the idea of developing my very own clown persona, that I immediately emailed them to ask if I could become a volunteer. I was put on the waiting list- which Izzy told me has now reached around 700!- so, sadly, my circus dreams were put on the back-burner. I still kept an eye on The Flying Seagulls on social media, and almost a year later, they came to Berlin to do two very special workshops... with Pass the Crayon!
I attended last week's Pankow session, to take part in a Flying Seagull led workshop, but before that, I met up with the team (part of 'Mile's Smiles Project'- the EU Flying Seagulls Travelling Team) to get a better idea of the real people behind the performance.
I arrived at our designated meeting place, ordered a coffee, and waited for the team to arrive. I was keeping an eye out for team leader, Izzy, and I was worried that maybe I wouldn't recognize her. But, I needn't have worried- after a couple of minutes, four colourful people wearing an assortment of waistcoats, bow ties and top hats entered the room- the Flying Seagulls had arrived!
I spent the next hour chatting with Izzy, Nick, Pascal and Katy, or to use their clown names, Wolffy, Curly, Pasquale and Kaddy. What really struck me from our conversation was the amount of care and maturity that goes into becoming a fully fledged Flying Seagull performer- play and fun is one component, but aside from this there are layers of awareness and a deep sensitivity that goes into performing and organizing a successful circus workshop.
Izzy explains to me a little more about this process of 'tailoring', which they actively practise during every single session. Most of the young groups that they work with have experienced some form of trauma, or deep unsettlement in their lives, so it becomes crucial to adapt to the emotional needs and capacity of their young audience. For instance, last year the Flying Seagulls did a show for the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, and they made the decision to remove all of their fire segments from the show.
When asked about the session they hosted the day before, at the Spandau shelter, they explain that they had been able to be quite loud and boisterous with the children, who were very excited to see them again. Location and level of stability is a big factor in determining how loud, or how stimulating to make their workshops- the kids at the Spandau shelters are much further along in the asylum process than the children they see at the camps in Greece, or Hungary, or Bangladesh."We have a camp on Lesbos, which is like a reception area- straight from the boat rescues - essentially it's a holding place until they get moved to a permanent camp, and for there, you just can't go in to thirty kids who last night were on a boat, and possibly nearly drowned, and half of them had mild hypothermia.... you can't run in and go "wahahhaahaha""
No matter what the particular needs of the children are, explains Izzy, The Flying Seagulls always bring the same 'mystery and excitement' to every single show- but just sometimes on a quieter level."We're just gonna go in, we're gonna smile- we will play a bit of music, we will do a few games, and if people want to join in, then great! And if 50 percent of the people just want to watch it, and they just have something to occupy their mind while mum's waiting in line to get all the clothes, and dad's waiting to register the family, they've just got that knowledge that the kids are just over there, they might just be sat on the corner watching..... its about being very mindful about what their need is and how we can best fulfill that- it's not always a massive big crazy show with loads of brass trumpets and fire."
Maintaining a connection with your fellow Seagull team mates throughout the session is also crucial to executing a smooth and enjoyable workshop. "There are two levels of awareness in the session", explains Pascal, "one is the clown- your interaction with the kids- and then there is awareness of each other- at any given moment, Izzy or Nick could be like, "Pascal'! Go get the hoops!"
Sometimes The Flying Seagulls lead workshops with over a hundred children, and there are normally 30-50 kids in every session- with these large numbers, being able to control the focus and energy of the group becomes really important. Nick explains that they always use a circle formation as a way of including and monitoring every sing child."This idea always comes back to the circle. There's such a uniformity and a kind of non-hierarchy- such a connectivity going on when you're in a circle. The kids can't help but follow... it's such a fundamental part of every session.""Not just in terms of managing", adds Izzy, "but in terms of really connecting- every child feels like we've connected with them. Whether its a little 'congrats' for doing particularly well during a game, or they got caught and were really fast- you need to be able to look everyone in the eye. When you were a kid, if there was a teacher you really liked- it's because they engaged with you- and you remember it forever."
(image via official website)
As I listened to them all describe incidents from their travels, it was striking how many similarities there are between The Flying Seagulls' workshops, and our own workshops at PTC. The social and emotional intelligence that is required to form genuine affection and respect with the kids- but also the constant awareness of the transience of that connection- the restraint, and to a certain extent, compartmentalization, that needs to take place in order to protect and maintain important boundaries.
"You can have that special bond, as long as you don't in any way reinforce that to the children. I can think of so many.. their smile.. their sense of humour- often they're the really cheeky ones. It's inevitable when you're in a place for a long time. There were kids I was seeing every day for 6 months. You build that bond- as long as you're always mindful- we are going to leave- that's really hard- you have to always keep a little bit of distance... It protects them- there are aid workers who go out for a couple of weeks- hugging, promising they will keep in contact- and then they never come back- and that is so irresponsible, its so cruel. These kids are living in such a transient environment where everyone is leaving and they never know when.. you can't make promises like that."
The bonds created whilst working in the camps endure long after The Flying Seagulls leave. I ask about the communication procedure once they have left- Are they allowed to stay in contact? How can they maintain that bond, but in a way which is completely fair and transparent? How best can the children's feelings and expectations, (and also the volunteer's feelings!) be managed? I recall my own experience saying goodbye to the children I used to aupair for- that pain of separation, and anxiety that the children will feel abandoned. It is important to not cut all contact- but keeping that communication, particularly with these young and vulnerable minors, can be tricky... particularly when they keep friend requesting you on Facebook! "The kids, they find you! I get requests all the time, from all of them. It's so hard- especially when they add and add and add. There is this one girl, 16 or 17 years old. She used to translate- she was so bright- and she's just wasting away there- she adds us all the time. I desperately want to add her and try to support her. You have to be really honest- I'm not allowed, it's not right...you feel really bad. She's cracking- really strong and independent. It will be the making of her, this experience- as long as she doesn't waste away. But she's got the drive- she's constantly learning- she's really special."
Recently The Flying Seagull's Project ran a very successful fundraising campaign, and with those funds they invested in a portable tent- a big top- that they could transport with them to the different camps. Having this physical space where the children can come to makes a huge difference to the overall atmosphere of the workshops- and general feelings of well-being and safety for the children. It creates a sense of permanence which is lacking from their everyday lives- a space which is specifically designed for their needs. Parents can leave them in the tent, safe in the knowledge that they will be there when they return. Away from the queues, and noise and dirt of the camp, the tent can provide a quiet space- a magical space- of play and discovery. To provide the kids with a tangible space which is there just for them can help them feel secure, and give them a sense of collective ownership. This can help them take back control, even if it's just within the perimeters of the tent- the space is for them. "If we can, we string fairy lights and bunting. They enter that space and you shut the outside wold out. Whatever situations that go on in the outside- your tent is leaking, your clothes are wet, or someone next door was shouting all night, or you've been sitting in the mud waiting for food for three hours- you get inside this tent of fairy lights and bunting and crazy music and wacky people dancing around... and you come into this magical space." "It's fascinating to see how their behavior changes", continues Nick, "when we were on Samos (Greece)- we would sometimes try to do sessions directly outside the camp- we managed to get through it- we had fourty kids, it was quite chaotic.. but when they are in a safer space, or a space that's dislocated from all the chaos, and the unsettling, itinerant nature of it- and you get them somewhere that is stable-- they can really open up."
I was interested in learning more about the children's response towards these strange clown people wearing bowler hats and bow ties, and riding unicycles and playing trumpets- this contrast between the bleakness of the refugee camp, and the vibrancy of the circus, and how the children manage to adapt to these two drastically different states of being. A quote in a Guardian article from The Flying Seagull Project founder, Ash Perrin, really highlighted this visceral transition that the children undergo when they move into this different world. “It used to take 15 minutes before you saw their child faces. They came with hard adult faces. Now the minute they see us it’s the vulnerable open child we see. They’re responding well.” As I read this quote, all four team members nod in agreement.
"It's such a privilege to be able to see that. You do see it come back now and again- the hard face- you see it come back on. They have to develop this armor- this other identity to survive- they have to learn how to be hard and how to take things and be the strongest and the fastest- whether it's to be at the front of the queue or to get those resources- they have to learn this skill. But at the end of the day, they are just like every other kid- they've had to grow up and experience adult experiences way too soon. You see it in the faces of parents as well- I love to look at the parents faces- when you look and see a dads relief that his little 4 year old is hula hooping."
Katie describes a particular interaction with a father and daughter- the father cheering as his child runs around."If I was uprooted from my home- having to put on a brave face for my child- that's a colossal amount for any adult. You put on top of that the fact they have a child to protect- they have that relief of 'don't worry- we are here. Sometimes they love to stay and watch. "
Deep in conversation, I suddenly remember the time- it's time to go to the workshop! Before we leave, I ask one final question... "How on earth do you say "goodbye"!?"
"We really have to explain. We have goodbye parties. I talked to all the kids, I said, "I'm going now.". They understand- it's very clear. We've had an amazing time- and we will try to come back- in two week we'll be back in northern Greece. But, we can't make any promises. For now, it's goodbye, good luck and big love."
*** We loved our time with The Flying Seagulls team, and we cannot wait for more collaborations in the future. As ever, a big thank you to the entire organisation for their important and inspiring work, and a special thanks to Wolffy, Pasquale, Kaddy and Curly, for speaking with me and for the amazing sessions that they hosted in Pankow and Spandau. Good luck in your future travels, and see you again soon! :) ***