Who said international politics, journalism and acrobatics cannot go hand in hand?

SARAH HUDSON arrived in Finland in 2006. She had previously been living in Beirut, where she was working as a freelance writer just when the war broke out. She was then forced to leave.

“Every time I mention this, everybody gets really excited and says, ‘it must have been a great experience to be a journalist in Lebanon during war time’,” she reflects. “Well, it wasn’t. I was mostly doing lifestyle reviews of bars and clubs – while they were quite lively through the conflict-, unfortunately, magazines weren’t. Basically all the media I was working for got shut down. Bank accounts were frozen, so no one got paid.”

She left the country via Syria. Originally the plan was to fly out, but the airport was bombed. So, Hudson and her companions ended up driving across the border into Damascus and spending the night there. “A few hours later, the road we had used was also destroyed, and soon after there was no way out. I should have stayed a bit longer; I would have got a free trip to Australia,” Hudson says playfully, and then explains that ships were sent to pick up citizens some weeks after.

Instead, she landed in France for a while, a country she was also familiar with after her previous experience as a barmaid in Paris (where she had been working at a ‘shitty bar’). However, after a few months of enjoying the great variety of French cheeses, Hudson came to the conclusion that there was not much for her to do there. And so she decided to pay a visit to her brother, who happened to live in Finland. The rest is history.

SixDegrees sat down with the Australian journalist to talk about her rich experience as a traveller, her love at first sight of the country of the thousand lakes and the social circus association she is one of the founders of, Sirkus Magenta.

What was your fist impression of Finland?

Finland did the magical thing of luring me when it was nice and sunny in August. It was also a beautiful autumn that year, and during your first winter here you still kind of like snow and it’s pretty exciting. Suddenly, one day it’s too late: you are sucked in, and just roll gradually into winter depression every year. [Laughs] But I think you have to work so hard to build a niche for yourself here, that, once you have it, it also becomes really hard to leave. On the other hand, my first job here was as a face-to-face marketer for Unicef. I travelled all over Finland in a mobile home for a couple of months and met some really great people. They are the reason why I decided to establish myself in Finland. Many say Finns are really backward and shy, and it’s hard to make friends here, but I found exactly the opposite.

Sirkus Magenta works with Syrian youth aged 15-24 years at Za’atri refugee camp in north Jordan as part of Finn Church Aid’s non-formal education program, funded by the Finnish Foreign Ministry. Sirkus Magenta’s special needs projects also operate with support from:
• Myrsky (Vamos project with youth at risk)
• Effective Circus Project/European Social Fund (suburb
• Vantaa City
• Elu Keskus
• Finnish Culture Fund (SKR)

Which is?

Such nice, intelligent, articulate, interesting and educated people, that I got hooked.

Was it easy to figure out what your plan was going to be in Finland?

Once I had been here for a while I was looking for an excuse to stay, so I decided to apply for a master’s degree – I found out it was free, and then I discovered I even got paid to do it, because I had been working here already long enough. I got the social security and the student loans. Then, after finishing my studies in Global Politics at the University of Helsinki, I somehow felt guilty. I didn’t want to just take the free education and leave, so I decided that I was going to do my time as a taxpayer here – which was not that easy, because I graduated right in the middle of the economic crisis.

So how did you land your first job after graduating?

As I told you, it was quite hard to find work at first. So, I suppose I had to use all the skills I had, and one of those skills happens to be circus. So I ended up teaching circus at a local school in Helsinki. From there I met people who wanted to take circus a bit further, including Silja Kyytinen the creator of Sirkus Magenta, a social circus association. Silja needed some help with the project, so I immediately jumped on board and, together with some other friends, we officially founded the association in 2011. Now we have about 20 trainers working for us, and we usually run 30 hours a week of classes. Plus, we also have a project in a camp of Syrian refugees in the north of Jordan.

Tell us more about the kind of work and activities you do at Sirkus Magenta.

Magenta is a social circus. We work with special needs groups: disabled kids, socially excluded young people, families in crisis, foster home kids etc. That’s our main raison d’être. We do a lot of in-school projects as well, and then we also run some adults hobby groups. So we are like a teaching circus, basically, we use circus skills as a vehicle to promote social inclusion, individual self-determination and confidence building.

What kind of skills do you teach and why are they so effective?

We do a lot of pairs acrobatics. It’s a lot of counterbalancing someone else’s weight, so you have to communicate; you have to make eye contact, hold or support someone, touch – it’s a really amazing kind of tool to use. It involves a lot of climbing on people or hanging off people. The reason why I think circus is so effective as a social tool is that it gives a lot of quick successes. At the beginning you think you are never going to be able to do certain tricks, and 10 minutes later you are there. And this is valid for anyone with a basic level of fitness. So it’s a very good way to get people encouraged and feeling better about themselves and their bodies. It’s magical… and very, very addictive!

Tell us about the project you are running in the refugee camp of Za’atri (Jordan), how it is working out so far and what your main achievements are in this field.

We work with the Syrian refugees living there. Our target group is 15 to 24 year-old youth. There are now unofficially some 170,000 people in a camp, in the middle of the desert. Most of them come from a town in the south of Syria from where the protests against the current regime started to spread. The thing is that in the camp there’s nothing to do. Schooling is provided by the UN and other organisations for kids, but they have a lot of difficulty getting anyone involved in anything. Passivity is a huge problem. I believe only one third of the kids there are going to school. So we have heard from different sources that the circus project is actually one of the most effective social projects they have ever seen. It gets people involved, and it keeps them involved. That’s one of our challenges there: keeping people coming, especially with the girls. Due to cultural issues, they might come for a few sessions and then they stop coming and, when you ask why, they say they have too much housework to do, and so they are not allowed to come. We suspect that for the girls it is only the less conservative families that allow them to come at all – although parents have actually turned out to love the circus for their kids. Also, they might arrive one day with a ring on their finger. They are 14 years old and they are engaged to be married maybe to a 40 year-old man. So they are not allowed to come to circus anymore because they are ‘women’ now and they have family duties.

“Finland did the magical thing
of luring me when it was
nice and sunny in August.”

What are the future plans regarding this project?

The project has been there since March, and we are sort of winding up for now in mid-November because we don’t know if the project will get funding to continue or not. At the moment we have four of our trainers there. It’s a pity because most of the youngsters there have lost relatives during the war, and the wonderful thing about the circus is that whatever trauma people have gone through, within the circus tent a lot of that drops away. People can be kids again, they can laugh, they can play and they can fail. Circus is a lot about failure. You start things up, you laugh, you fall over, you laugh. All of us need to have a safe place to fail, and that’s what the circus offers. As much as the situation can differ from one place to another, people are people everywhere. Laughter and joy are universal. In that sense I believe Sirkus Magenta is doing a lot more good for the world than most of politics ever has or will do.

I understand that at the beginning of this year you landed a job with Yle, in online, radio and TV news journalism in English. What have you learnt thanks to this position?

Working in news journalism you get to know a lot more than you ever needed to know about Finnish politics. [laughs] But I think in many ways my respect has largely grown. I really respect where Finland stands in the international scene, I respect the politics and the politicians, because in my home country politics and politicians are largely disgraceful. Partly also because people have such low expectations of them that it kind of gives them a licence to behave in a very poor way. It’s really sad, because I think people are coming to politics with a vision and some commitment – they just lose it when they start thinking they should ‘play the game’. I have respect for the way Finns conduct themselves. There is a strong welfare state here because people believe in helping each other. I don’t know if the politics come before the mentality, or the other way around. The idea is not to think about yourself all the time but keep in mind the big picture.

An easy one to wrap up…Do you speak Finnish?

Yeah, I do – although not fabulously well and it’s an eternal struggle. I needed it for work. For Yle I have to translate a lot, but the thing is I have never decided that I was going to learn Finnish, and, except for about six credits at university, I’ve never studied it thoroughly. So, there is evidently some way to learn Finnish through osmosis.

Text and image Eva Blanco.