Clowning Around With Burmese Refugees

A Partner Post by contributor, Emma Corcoran. 

The dense, mountainous jungle on the Thai-Burmese  border serves as an inhospitable home to around 14,000 refugees. Over the last three decades, fighting between Burmese hill-tribe militias and government forces has turned the Burmese side of the border into a danger-zone of murder, rape and hunger. As a result, thousands of Burmese refugees have fled into Thailand seeking a stability they can’t find in their homeland.

The refugees are housed in nine ramshackle camps along the rugged border region or live precarious lives as undocumented migrants in towns outside the camps. Many of the children born to Burmese parents in Thailand enter the world as stateless infants, because they´re denied birth certification from either country.

Early Morning in a Thai Refugee Camp

“I think the first time I went to the camps was around eight years ago,” says Andrea Russell, speaking on the phone from her home on the Canadian west-coast.  “I just couldn’t believe how many people there were and how little awareness there was in the rest of the world about their situation.”

Andrea had been a regular visitor to Thailand since studying there at the age of 17 as an exchange-student. In 2005,  a friend who ran an informal circus took her to the Mae Sot region on the Thai-Burmese border to perform for some of the refugee children.

Eight years later, Andrea is the soft-spoken, but passionate “ringmaster” and director of Spark Circus, a nonprofit organisation which brings together circus performers from around the world to perform an annual series of concerts and workshops for the Burmese refugees in the Mae Sot area. The volunteer circus performers use music, dance, games and clowning to bring a day of levity into the lives of thousands of underprivileged children, many of whom don’t own even a single toy.

Ringmaster Andrea Russell (on the right)

 “Some years we go into the camps,” says Andrea, “At other times, we focus on the refugees that don’thave status; the illegal migrant workers clustered along the border areas. They’re kind of  living in the jungle. Some of the children are orphans, and some of the children aren’t totally orphans, but their parents have sent them across the border alone, because it’s considered safer than the life on the other side.”

Children Enjoying a Sparks Circus Visit

Although the political situation in Burma has improved in the last year, many of the refugees are wary of this latest outbreak of stability.  In the past, peace in Burma has proven to be as fleeting and illusory as the morning mist in its steep mountains, and the refugees don’t yet feel confident to making the return journey across the border.

Whilst Andrea says she knows refugees who are confident and optimistic about a brighter future for Burma, she has also talked to many who are distrustful of the Burmese government.   She says that many Burmese refugees who were born in Thailand feel “frightened about being sent to a country they have never set foot in.”

When asked about a memorable incident during the eight years she’s been running Sparks Circus, Andrea talks about a “really short, funny moment…it was in a refugee camp during the evening show. I was sitting in the audience, and stilt-walkers came on during the finale. And these women beside me were speaking in Thai to each other in total confusion, saying ‘How are these women so tall?’ They didn’t know about stilts, so they thought that these foreign women actually grew over eight feet tall! So, it was pretty funny when I explained to them that the women were wearing wooden stilts underneath their costumes.”

During their month-long tour of the Mae Sot region, the colorfully-costumed Spark Circus troupe travel with equipment such as hula hoops, violins and juggling balls, which are used during choreographed performances. In the day they give interactive play workshops in schools, hospitals, orphanages, refugee camps and special needs centres.  In the evenings, the performers put on a spectacular fire-show for the entire community.

Evening Fire-Show

Andrea says that leaving the children she has connected with is always a difficult experience: “The most emotionally fraught thing is just leaving the kids at the end of the day. There’s always one or two children that you really bond with, and I wish I could take them out of the situation. But because  the children, for the most part, don’t have any identity papers, most of these children you couldn’t even adopt. So, unless you were to steal them (which occurs to us every once in a while!) you have to leave them.”

Interactive Games During a Spark Circus Workshop

The Sparks Circus members are keen to ensure that their impact is felt in the local communities during the eleven months between their annual visits. Along with giving artistic performances, they raise funds before their arrival in Mae Sot and purchase much-needed items for the local refugees. The group gives out toys, games and school supplies, provides funds to local NGOs to buy food, and also donates equipment such as water pumps.

 Andrea says that the organisation is always in need of financial support and people who can run Spark Circus fundraisers in their local communities. She says that “larger donors can guide us in what they’d like their donation go to — to the performers themselves or to something like a water tank. We try to send back photos showing where the money has gone.”

If you have performance skills and would like to run away with the circus, you can also apply for a volunteer position through the Sparks Circus website (although the positions for the January 2014 tour are currently filled).

A Young Burmese Refugee

About Perpetual Explorer

Taking an inquisitive approach to accessing cultural news, resources, and information, challenges readers in their understanding of people and places, creating a global community of participation, interaction, engagement, and dialogue.

[photography courtesy]


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