The Afghan circus that helps children get off the streets

Fifteen-year-old Rabia left child labour behind to become Afghanistan’s best juggler. Other children at Kabul’s mobile mini circus hope to follow in her footsteps

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It’s a different world behind the thick iron gates on a grey, dusty road in west Kabul, an otherwise crowded neighbourhood of coffee shops and street vendors, university students and child labourers.

Here, in a courtyard of colourful shipping containers stacked up on top of one another, Afghanistan’s first circus for children is taking kids off the streets – and into safety.

For now, their activities are suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak, with 1,026 cases reported in the country by Monday. But prior to the pandemic, and when restrictions are lifted, the circus is an opportunity to juggle tennis balls, walk on tightropes, learn the hula hoop or practise stand-up comedy – away from hard labour and street harassment.

Of the four million people in the Afghan capital, an estimated 60,000 are street-working children, according to Unicef, with hundreds of thousands of minors labouring throughout the country, many of them compromising their education to substitute their family's income.

Afghanistan has had four decades of war, and many families are struggling to cope. A 2018 government survey found that more than half of the population lives below the poverty line, with rapid population growth and violence further contributing to the scale.

At least a quarter of Afghans between the ages of five and 14 work to support themselves and their families, Human Rights Watch said, with only half of them attending school.

Kabul’s mobile mini circus for children is trying to change that, first by providing a fun alternative to roaming the streets, later by strategically placing kids in local schools and making sure their families have the means to survive.

Fardeen Barekzai, 25, who joined the circus when it started in 2002, a year after the Taliban’s fall and US-led invasion, experienced just that.

“I was working as a shoeshine boy, sold toilet paper or cleaned cars,” he recalls. “Kabul was going through massive changes after the Taliban left the city, and my parents were poor. I spent most of my childhood outside, working. Back when the circus started, I was pretty much picked up from the streets.”

It all started with a Danish journalist who came up with the idea 18 years ago. Since then the project has been Afghan-led and, over the years, had more than 2.7 million children participating throughout the country. Dozens still attend Kabul’s circus daily.

Barekzai, who now manages the circus, was able to finish his own education and later went on to university in Europe. When he was a child, the circus organisers made sure his family was coping without needing him to work.

Years later, upon his return to Afghanistan, there was little question of what he’d do. “Working on the streets robbed me of my childhood. I don’t want the same to happen to more children today,” he says. “That’s why I knew I wanted to get involved with the circus full-time.”

It’s a daily burst of colour as dozens of children run through the courtyard, practising stunts and performances, chasing one another or collaborating to work on paintings and crafts. Anyone is welcome here, as long as their parents agree.

Rabia, 15, is one of them. She went from working to support her family to becoming Afghanistan’s best juggler. Today she’s competing internationally and showing off her skills. She’s travelled to Italy and Germany on several occasions and has performed more than a hundred times.

At the circus, she stands on a gymnastic ball, focused on balancing five clubs or seven balls. Growing up in a crowded Kabul neighbourhood, she passed the circus’s colourfully painted shipping containers one day and heard loud voices of children on the other side of the gate. It piqued her curiosity.

Rabia’s smile is contagious as she details what happened next. She’s worked hard on her juggling skills but has also been able to attend school. Travelling to Italy two years ago was her first visit abroad; since then she’s been on the road regularly.

"It's not always easy for girls in Afghanistan," Rabia told The National, "so there's one thing I want to do: I want to show other girls that anything is possible if you fight for it."

Life for both girls and women is often difficult in Afghanistan, with 30 to 40 per cent of girls married before the age of 18, according to Unicef. The peace deal between Washington and the Taliban that could lead to a complete withdrawal of US troops in the next 14 months makes many girls and women worry about their future.

The agreement was supposed to pave the way for direct negotiations between the militants and the Afghan government, but Afghans worry that a return of the Taliban could bring bleak times. There still is no date for direct talks between the two sides.

“It’s difficult. The country is dangerous and there are few spaces for children – especially for girls – to come together,” Barekzai explains. “We’ve created a rare, fun and positive environment for all children. It’s a creative approach, it’s different from anything else we’ve seen in the country, but we’re teaching children to respect each other and to treat each other as equals.”

Smaller circuses have mushroomed across Afghanistan since the start of the mobile mini circus for children in Kabul. “We regularly tour the country’s provinces and perform, and many have copied our model,” Barekzai says.

Ahmed, 10, who has taken up tightrope walking, says Rabia is who he strives to be like. He has come to the circus every day for the past year, leaving his job selling plastic bags in one of Kabul’s most crowded markets. “It was scary,” he admitted. “Sometimes people would beat us and yell at us. Sometimes we heard gunshots and explosions.”

Rabia has made it far, he says, and he hopes to do the same.

“Before coming here, making money for my family was the only thing on my mind,” he says. “This has changed. I have many dreams for the future.”