A circus is a show featuring colourful, entertaining and often daring acts. A circus aims to amuse, to entertain and to joke. And a circus is also a method of rehabilitation.
Despite the fun factor, circus acts and similar physical activities are used by IRCT members to encourage confidence, creativity and cooperation among torture survivors.
One particular example of this is the ‘Body Movement Reconnect’ programme, a joint initiative between Australian member STTARS and the group Uniting Care Wesley Bowden.
With the assistance of trainers at the South Australian Circus Company, this six-month program from February 2014 helped female survivors of torture body awareness, develop social connections, improve fitness and build self-esteem to reduce the impact of chronic pain.
For Katie, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, the STTARS programme restored happiness and a sense of belonging, missing after years of fear during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, her subsequent move to Iran and her experience of rape as a child.
“When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan [in 1979], I was 11 years old. At this time, the Soviet soldiers were catching girls and disappearing with them. They would also come after the young boys taking them in the name of military service,” Katie explains.
“At the time, I didn’t feel that affected because I was young. But I remember many girls disappeared. If you left the house then you could be taken. So we did not leave the house.”
In 1980, Katie and her mother, four sisters, three brothers and grandmother fled to Iran. Her father stayed in Afghanistan to fight. He was killed.
“In Iran, I didn’t go to school. Half of the children did not go to school because of the expense, the rent of the house, and living in a country illegally,” says Katie.
“It was only after we moved that I began to recall trauma I suffered in Afghanistan. I had been lying to people to stop them finding out.”
While bringing a meal to her brother-in-law, Katie was imprisoned in his home and raped.
“I didn’t know anything about being a woman,” Katie says. “I did not know what had happened to me as I passed out. I felt ashamed and embarrassed.”
“It was hard to forget the memories when I was 11 years, but my husband was a good man. We had a beautiful son together, but when my son was five-years-old, he became sick and died. That was the saddest time of my life.”
This culmination of sadness from fleeing Afghanistan and her rape began to takes its toll on Katie.
“My life during those times was coloured with sadness. I came to Australia with hopes for a better life. I was very scared in the beginning. Everybody spoke a foreign language and everything was unknown,” Katie says.
“When I came to STTARS three years ago, I met ladies from my country, it was here that I began to feel safe.”
Katie soon joined the Body Movement Reconnect programme, participating in a range of circus activities accompanied by therapy and group counselling.
After six-months of support from STTARS, Katie feels reinvented.
“For me it was like being with my sisters again, there were women laughing, having fun, exercising. We shared lunch and talked about our countries and background. It always felt like a safe space and I knew the women there understood me and I understood them. I am a strong Afghani woman, and that makes me feel proud.”