BEIRUT: Squawking and hollering, a motley group of more than 100 Syrian kids point excitedly at the clown playing dead on the floor before them.
In the center of the dusty rooftop in Shatila camp, two other clowns wail inconsolably, while a fourth giggles in delight at the pantomime unfolding in front of him. There isn’t normally a whole lot of joy in being a child refugee in Lebanon, but for Clowns Without Borders, there is always room for more laughter.
The group was born in 1993, when Tortell Poltrona, a professional Spanish clown, was invited to perform in a refugee camp in Croatia. The show was such a hit that Poltrona decided to create an organization that would travel to conflict- and disaster-hit zones to entertain those who had the least reason to smile.
Built on the idea that laughing can help relieve any sort of trouble – even if only temporarily – the company has since been all over the world, from Mexico and Myanmar to Haiti and Ethiopia.
This Monday, funded by Kuwaiti humanitarian organization Layan, they began a fortnight-long tour of refugee communities in Lebanon, which is currently hosting well over 1 million Syrians fleeing the brutal civil war next door. Around 50 percent are thought to be children, many of whom do not go to school and are instead forced to work on the streets or fields and support their family.
“Clowns, if you do it right, inhabit a magical world where anything is possible, and so when you watch that, it gives you that same feeling,” explains American Luz Gaxiola, one of those performing at Shatila’s Basma wa Zaytouna (Smile and Olive) school Thursday.
“We hope to give these kids the same thing we give everyone: a pause from your daily worries. Whatever is going on in your life – big problems, small problems ... it’s a time when you can just breathe and reconnect with really simple joys.”
And simple joys is exactly what the show provides, using four different characters to create a range of hilarious slapstick routines that have everyone from 5-year-old students to teachers roaring with laughter.
Dressed in a spotty skirt and braces, Gaxiola’s act is all about playing the dork.
“I’ve been doing this for about 10 years and I’ve developed four or five different personas that all focus on different things. This one is all about these nerd glasses,” she takes off a pair of thick-rimmed, owlish black glasses and exaggerates crossing her eyes as if she can’t see without them.
Gaxiola is joined on stage by three others, none of whom she has worked with before: Chilean Claudio Martinez, who plays the comically sad clown to perfection; American David Clay, a grumpy, bossy type; and zany, attention-seeking Lebanese Sabine Choucair, who also runs her own clowning company here called Clown Me In.
“I work a lot with Syrian refugees doing social therapy,” Choucair says, adjusting her giant green fake eyelashes. “I know how horrified they are, how sad they are, how insecure they feel.
“It’s just good to come and spend some time with them so they can forget about these things, where they can laugh, and then they see things differently.”
As the hourlong show rolls on, the clowns switch seamlessly from musical numbers to sword throwing to riotous chase scenes that leave the kids in stitches.
“It’s amazing,” remarks Basma wa Zaytouna director Siham Abu Sitta as she watches a scene involving a handshake that never seems to go to plan. “You know this is the first time they have seen a clown, normally this sort of thing is too expensive for us.”
Basma wa Zaytouna, which was set up five months ago specifically for Syrian refugee kids living in the impoverished camp, even held a special class on clowns, or muharrajeen, in preparation for the event.
“Yes, it’s the first time I’ve seen something like this,” 15-year-old student Azaddine says with a happy sigh. “It’s really great. I liked the juggling and sword bits best.”
For Hanadi Woeis, who teaches English to the 300 kids at the school, the clowns’ visit provides a much-needed break from the usual routine.
“When kids get to enjoy different activities it releases something inside of them,” she says. “We have so many kids who have problems. Some kids have seen such shocking things – like both of their parents killed in front of their eyes – that they don’t even speak.”
It may sound like pure frippery, but with all the screaming, chuckling, clapping and chanting, it’s easy to see how it actually provides the exact release that traumatized kids need.