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Clowning Without Borders Aims To Give Refugees Another Way To Heal

Lebanese clown Sabine Choucair, a member of "Clowns Without Borders," performs for children in June at a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern town of Chtoura, Lebanon. Bilal Hussein/AP hide caption

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Bilal Hussein/AP

Lebanese clown Sabine Choucair, a member of "Clowns Without Borders," performs for children in June at a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern town of Chtoura, Lebanon.

Bilal Hussein/AP

On a cold November morning, 300 children gather in a soccer field in Zaatari, a Jordanian village next to the country's largest refugee camp.

Most of them are Syrians who fled from Homs with their families and now live in makeshift tents in what was already a poor rural area. But today the children are not lining up to collect food coupons or clothes from NGOs: They are here to watch the clowns.

On the "stage" — a space in front of a velvet curtain covering the goal — a tall, blond woman performs a handstand while doing the splits, while two other performers run around clapping and making funny faces. As the upside-down woman pretends to fall, the children burst into laughter.

The performers are circus artists from Sweden, who, like many Westerners, felt compelled to come bring some relief to the hundreds of thousands of refugees. But instead of supplies, they bring stuffed animals, magic tricks and bubble wands.

Clowns Without Borders is a global network of nonprofit organizations that, for the past 20 years, has been spreading laughter in the world's saddest places. The group's most recent annual report says more than 385 artists performed 1,164 shows for its chapters in 2012 in 38 countries, both in the developing world and for refugees and other disadvantaged children in Western countries.

"It's very important to give kids a chance to be kids again," explains Lilja Fredriksson, one of the Swedish performers, "especially after all they have been through."

The group's $1.8 million budget is a mix of public, private and foundation funds, and of its 11 chapters the Swedish one is among the most active. This was the last of a series of 11 performances it put on in Jordan for poor communities and children with disabilities.

"Making them laugh is so much easier than I thought!" says Anja Duchko Zuber, another of the performers at the show in Jordan.

But can an hourlong circus act really change the troubled lives of refugee children? Psycho-social activities can be crucial in helping kids' emotional well-being, experts say, but the artists' efforts can be easily wasted without the right expertise.

"It's absolutely crucial that performers are very prepared before they visit places like refugee camps," says Mahmoud Shabeeb, the communications officer for the Syria response by CARE, an international relief organization. "Despite the best intentions, it's very easy to have bad surprises and shortcomings when you don't really understand the circumstances you're working in."

Syrian refugee children smile while watching members of Clowns Without Borders perform in June at a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Various chapters of the group did several tours through camps on the Syrian border in 2014. Bilal Hussein/AP hide caption

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Bilal Hussein/AP

Syrian refugee children smile while watching members of Clowns Without Borders perform in June at a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Various chapters of the group did several tours through camps on the Syrian border in 2014.

Bilal Hussein/AP

The younger kids at the refugee camp performance are both fascinated and a little confused by the clowns. Nour, an 8-year-old, watches mesmerized as the clowns blow soap bubbles over her head. "They are my favorite!" she says.

Still, not all jokes translate, and the audience is often unpredictable. When one of the clowns pops a balloon full of confetti, children storm the stage to gather the little bits of paper. It takes a few minutes for the crowd to settle.

Next comes a magic trick. Lilja shows the children a blank book, but before she can make the images magically appear, a child runs to give her a pen.

And, of course, some older children are not that impressed. "You are not fooling me. I can see you put that in your pocket," says one of them in Arabic, adding, "they are not funny."

Meanwhile, teenagers perched around the stadium fencing seem unfazed by the pirouettes of the professional circus artists. But they don't leave.

After the show, the children hang out with the clowns until the volunteers say its time to go.

"It's always the adults that get saddest when saying goodbye," says Julie Delaire, co-founder of Dar Al Yasmin, an aid organization that serves the refugee camp and arranged for Clowns Without Borders to visit. "The children just live in the moment. And it's a good thing."