Images of refugee camps, circulating through mass media, are rarely, if ever, joyous. One sees the occasional cinema in a camp with children eating popcorn and gathering happily to watch a film, or another with charity groups who make children awkwardly smile for photos for them to post on Instagram with captions that read ‘happiness can’t be bought’. Utter, genuine joy, however, is rare

The reasons are not hard to understand; the mere fact of the camps’ existence is a problem; in spite of our eyes becoming accustomed to the image of (un)livable tents in the center of urban jungles, their inception began – allegedly – as part of an intention to find a temporary fix for the ever-increasing so-called 'refugee crisis’, and ended up being dispersed across the globe, made into a global phenomenon and a permanent state of limbo for millions of refugees.

You really don’t need a PhD to understand clowning.

But one unexpected source of joy – the most typical yet unpredictable – is now touring Lebanon’s refugee camps: a clown troupe, called Clown Me In, which organises performances as well as teaches clowning workshops as a way to offer a different mode of creative expression to refugees to articulate their experiences and spread joy amongst each other at the same time.

“Clowning [allows us] to touch the vulnerability of the person, be honest, break this fourth wall with people, it just all made sense to me [in the context of refugees],” explains Clown Me In co-founder, clown and performer Sabine Choucair. Sabine discovered clowning while studying miming in the UK; she went to a performing arts school and found the potential that clowning had not just for expression, but for being a highly mobile and accessible art form.

...that’s why we always try to use it in camps and with refugees, is that it’s a very simple, very cheerful and happy art, and at the same time, it does wonders.

“What’s amazing about it, and that’s why we always try to use it in camps and with refugees, is that it’s a very simple, very cheerful and happy art, and at the same time, it does wonders. You really don’t need a PhD to understand clowning. You just need to enjoy and laugh and laughter alone also does wonders,” Sabine says.

With that in mind, she took the art to the people she thought could make the most of it – indigenous and disadvantaged communities in Mexico – with co-founder, Gabriela Munoz, first, then around Latin America, in Brazil and the Amazon, before heading back to her native Lebanon to provide relief to refugee communities.

When you say ‘clown’ to people here, they’ll either think of IT the movie or a birthday party clown

“The most amazing thing about clowning is that we see the effect straight away, so we often go to camps, or anywhere really where people are usually not very cheerful, and then as soon as we arrive, there’s an instant reaction of going from a neutral face or sad face to a joyful and super happy face, and the whole feeling of the place changes,” says Sabine. Even though clowning is not widespread, especially as an ‘art’, it is perhaps one of the arts that is most malleable, teachable and that is at the essence of its power – it knows no borders and no age, and it leaves a profound, genuine and, as Sabine explained, incredibly fast impact.

Even though people living in refugee camps are in need of much more than laughter – most notably safety, stability, and shelter – it remains one of the essential elements of human life forcibly lost on them, because their living situations do not enable them to laugh often, and that’s what Sabine aims to provide. Laughter, however, does not stand on its own, and Sabine’s group acknowledges that. “It went from only giving workshops and performances to really doing artivism on the streets, so using art, using this art of clowning, to do some activisim regarding everything that bothers us in the country, like environmental problems, corruption, and social injustice.”

Besides giving actual performances, the clown troupe is trained to give workshops in clowning, and Sabine says children are more than eager to use acting as a way of expressing their stories. “When we started The Caravan Project, which was based on Syrian refugee stories, in the first one, the actors were non-professional actors that we recruited from the camps,” says Sabine. “They really enjoyed the experience of learning how to perform and then touring on the streets with stories that were collected from their entourage.”

They launched The Caravan Project in 2016, putting Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese children’s stories at the forefront of their performances, tackling topics ranging from violence, bullying, and poverty, to forced labour and violations of their legal rights. A group of professional actors climb atop a van, which is made into different sets, for a performance accompanied by recorded audio of the children’s stories – a method they are pioneering in an effort to keep the focus of their work on the children themselves, rather than taking away from it by silencing them.

We’ve been to most of all of the demonstrations that happened in the streets, dressed as clowns. […] It adds more listening and acceptance from the people we’re addressing this demonstration to.

“We recorded with kids who are refugees, who talked about violence between them at school. I went to their school, spent maybe 2-3 days with them and then recorded some of the violent behaviors they are facing and committing on each other," she recounts. "I also followed one seven-year-old kid who sells flowers in the streets, and he tells us what happens to him on the streets and his experiences with people,” she adds. Those kinds of unheard and silenced stories are at the heart of Clown Me In, whose art makes for an appropriate outlet for marginalised voices.

Clowns’ marginality in the art scene in and of itself certainly acted as a hurdle for the troupe, because they are not treated as artists in the Middle East. However, that didn’t stop them from attempting to mainstream it and helping it reach audiences that would have probably never had access to them. “When you say ‘clown’ to people here, they’ll either think of IT the movie or a birthday party clown, so it’s not at all popular,” says Sabine. But they make videos, and they take their art form to the streets, and as a result, people who may have never thought of clowns in this context - especially that of social justice - begin to consider it as such. And they use the accessibility of their art, and the immediate reaction of happiness it fosters, to their advantage.

They created a Valentine’s Day video in 2016 that went viral, spotlighting the garbage crisis in Lebanon, which started roughly in 2015 with the closure of an over-capacity landfill in Naameh, Lebanon. The consequent dumping of trash into seas and coastal landfills, as well as in the streets of Beirut, demonstrated severe reaction on the part of Lebanese authorities that has been causing outrage across Lebanon for years.

Several actors from Clown Me In took to the streets of Beirut on Valentine’s Day with a light yet powerful performance, showing couples dancing amid the trash piled up in the outskirts of the city – a play on the popular motif, ‘love is in the air’.

From the outset, the street became their stage. “The first time we went on the streets, it was 2011, and it was actually part of an exercise I was doing with people who were taking the clown workshop,” explains Sabine. “I told them okay, the clown is alive when the clown is in front of people, so let’s go on the street and attack it.”

We recorded with kids who are refugees, who talked about violence between them at school. I went to their school, spent maybe 2-3 days with them and then recorded some of the violent behaviors they are facing and committing on each other

That marked the inception of Clown Me In’s ‘clown attacks,’ which sees a group of them go onto the street, fighting for one cause or another, from Lebanon’s environmental issues, to corruption. “We’ve been to most of all of the demonstrations that happened in the streets, dressed as clowns. […] It adds more listening and acceptance from the people we’re addressing this demonstration to. When we want to say something that’s harsh and straight to the point, it’s always better to do it through laughter than through anger. It says, we’re not here to kill. We’re not here to fight in a violent way. We’re here to ask for our rights, but to ask for our rights, in order for you to hear us, we’re just going to ask for them in a fun way.”

And it’s true that going as clowns gives them an edge during demonstrations on the streets. Sabine points out that they are rarely afraid to approach cops, to stand near them, talk to them, and humor them. They’re the only ones who are able to do that, and that gives them leverage – people think they are only being funny, but in reality, they are fighting along with the rest of the demonstrators, finding more leeway than others, and allowing potential for acceptance between parties who are usually on opposite sides of the fight.

They’re now also moving their fights – for social justice, for clowning as an art, and for refugee communities – past the streets and camps, and into classrooms, with the opening of a street theatre school in Beirut called the International Institute for Very Very Serious Studies, which just began operating for the 2019/20 school year. “We’re working with a diverse group of 12 artists, to teach classes in clowning, bouffon technique [a clowning technique that teaches mockery], story-telling, and social therapy,” says Sabine. “The idea is for students, after four months of intensive training, to go next year and work with communities around Lebanon, and come up with street performances about issues that people are facing.”

Clown Me In’s work with refugees and their efforts to perform their art as a platform for healing, trauma relief, social resistance and dialogue has evolved in many ways since it first began, and they are now working on establishing themselves across different fields by developing sustainable efforts and gathering more and more aspiring clowns together to fight – for social justice, for free speech, political dialogue, and for refugees’ right to laugh.

Images courtesy of Clown Me In.

You can follow Clown Me In's activities on their Facebook and Instagram pages, and their website.