Read Part I here.
Imagine the eyes of half-a-thousand children staring up at you. None of them share a common language, and they don’t have to; their unwavering gazes shout volumes without uttering a single word. Heartbreak and famine and loss all merge into thunderous silence.
You’re alone, standing in the dust on the sun-scorched ground where a stage should be. A performance artist at heart, you feel naked without props. No balloon animals. No aerial maneuvers to elicit excitement from the audience, to stir tension and draw sighs of relief. No playful banter to fill the spaces between. Just so much longing.
You have 15 minutes to help them remember what laughter feels like.
These are the conditions performing artists must face if they choose to join Clowns Without Borders (CWB). Volunteers who seek out the organization do so because despite all odds, no matter what hardships or disastrous circumstances have taken their toll, these brave men and women truly believe the joy and laughter of their collective passion can bring light into the lives of those who have lost it.
Molly Levine, Executive Director of the U.S. Chapter of CWB, explains to BTR why fostering this kind of entertainment can be so daunting.
“Not everyone wants to be doing their art where there’s no stage,” she says. “Where there’s no curtain and no lights; where they have to travel miles and miles through rugged terrain just to perform on some dusty ground. But if that sounds enticing… you’ll join a team of the most compassionate and talented people that I know.”
Nothing would be possible without the ardent ambitions of CWB’s incredible team, whose diversity of backgrounds stitch together to form a colorful tableau. Take Curtis Carlyle–a Guinness world record-setter for the yoyo who was born in a lighthouse and grew up to study juggling under the tutelage of greats (including the legendary Charlie Brown).
There’s Sabine Choucair, a theater graduate and professional mime. She directs the Beirut Cinema Days Arab Film Festival when she’s not busy traveling around the world providing group therapy projects with storytelling. Olivia Lerhman swings from flying trapezes, from Brooklyn to China to Haiti, all to teach communication through embracing what makes us feel most alive. Clay “Mazing” Letson earned his nickname working alongside the best. He performed with Patch Adams for Syrian refugees in Jordan, and later went on to create his own non-profit humanitarian circus called the Emergency Circus. So far they’ve traveled thousands of miles to deliver their empathetic healing powers across North America.
Even with a workforce eager to set sails and make a difference, CWB can’t just send their performers wherever they believe help is most needed. Each mission must begin with a request.
“We only go where we are invited,” Levine explains. “We have to make sure it’s always appropriate to go where we’re working. Our number one concern is the safety of our audience and performers, so we’ll only make choices if we can assure their safety.”
The call to action for each of CWB’s missions drastically differs from one to the next. For example, an invitation from local troops in Turkey spurred a trip in July of 2015. The country is currently home to approximately 1.9 million refugees, mostly from Syria, but also from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. With only two clowns, CWB managed to serve almost 2,000 people in just under two weeks.
The incessant need for peace and laughter in Turkey, particularly near the Syrian border, culminated in another mission last December. This time, it was an anonymous business man who contacted CWB. An American traveling to Istanbul for a conference, he was personally touched by the plight of the refugees and didn’t know what to do.
“His first idea was to rent a van and fill it with five thousand dollars worth of goods to go distribute,” recalls Levine. “But after talking with people and finding out that way of distributing wasn’t the best, he landed on sponsoring a clown trip for the people staying in those refugee camps. So we ended up getting the trip together in only two weeks.”
On another trip, organized by CWB’s own Choucair, three clowns brought joy and laughter to an astounding 6,800 people over the course of 33 shows.
Despite the mortifying political scenarios responsible for the refugee camps, violence, and poverty that CWB’s clowns work to alleviate, the organization remains politically unaffiliated. Levine maintains that all children are innocent and deserving of relief, regardless of what side of the conflict they find themselves immersed in. As long as children are in need, then CWB will perform.
Levine is quick to acknowledge that these humanitarian efforts are no replacement for indispensable aid like food and water, and that it’s not always an appropriate time for a performance. But after the refugees’ basic survival needs are met, laughter can be a valuable tool for building communities and healing from trauma.
“When we get there, there’s noise, but not much joy,” she says. “People are in one of the most stressful places and times of their lives. There’s a lot of uncertainty. But the way that the energy changes between when we arrive, do a show, and leave… it’s astonishing.”
Levine recalls a particular memory from the trip organized by Choucair last October, which brought CWB’s troupe to Lesvos, Greece. She was riding in a car on the way to the harbor. Hundreds of refugees swayed in the heat. All waited with the same pensive look, their gazes cast out over the water and into the horizon. This was one of the few ports capable of providing a safe vessel via ferry to Athens.
As the car rolled closer to the docks, a fleeting glimpse in the shifting crowds snared Levine’s eye. Two little girls stood side by side, one of them hysterically sobbing while the other attempted to console her. Only one day earlier, these same friends were part of an audience CWB had performed for. Levine remembered their faces immediately, radiant and free just 12 hours prior.
While she continued to stare out the window, the girl attempting to comfort her friend met Levine’s eyes. She grabbed her companion with both hands and shook her. Levine watched in awe as the little girl pointed towards her approaching car.
The tears stopped. A girl who only moments before appeared racked with fear suddenly caught alight. Beaming and shouting, “The clowns are here!,” both girls chased the car until it finally slowed to a halt by the water. Performers piled out of the cramped vehicle with all the cartoon lunacy of a traditional “clown car” and swept the children up into play.
“The resilience of children is the most amazing thing,” says Levine. “They’re ready to have a good time and be in the present, to let this moment be OK. It’s such a huge motivating factor to be able to see that.”
She also relates that one of the greatest releases for parents is to witness their children smiling and laughing for the first time since a crisis started.
Later that day in Greece, the troupe decided to make a pit stop at a different harbor. A crowd of refugees quickly filled in, so Levine and company opened the circle for a round of performances.
A voice broke through the crowd, telling a joke in Arabic that caused everyone to erupt. The performers looked to one another and shrugged. “If this guys is funnier than us,” they mused, “then we should probably invite him to join the show.”
The man who spoke stepped into the center of the circle and engaged in a playful lasso dance with a cowboy clown. Their heels kicked up a flurry of dust, and before long, all parties were roaring with laughter.
During a momentary respite from the cheering, the stranger caught his breath and addressed the crowd.
“Sure,” he bellowed, “my father burned to death two weeks ago. I almost died in a shipwreck last night. But we’re here today!”
Levine marks it as one of the most important experiences in her life, and relates how it’s led to personally keeping a better perspective on life. If these communities who are experiencing such dire circumstances can still come to the table and connect with strangers, she explains, if they can play and laugh and share that human connection together, then the biggest takeaway for all of us is that we can all have that experience no matter what our circumstances may be.
Not everybody will grasp the magnitude of these seemingly small moments. Levine is often asked what it’s like to foster this kind of relationship, a question that’s occasionally accompanied by a look of disbelief or emotional distance.
She tells each of them the same thing.
“If you have a child, or a niece or a nephew,” she says, “think about the first time that child told you they loved you with words. Or the first time they smiled at you. If you can remember that feeling in your chest, that’s the feeling we’re making at our shows—the feeling that the community is making. It’s the feeling of connection, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
If you felt moved by Levine’s stories, take the time to visit Clowns Without Borders website and make a contribution today. The organization is funded entirely by individual donations; whether it’s one dollar or one hundred, every penny counts.
Stay tuned for CWB’s 2016 missions to El Salvador (February), Haiti (March), and returns to Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, and India.