A funny thing happened on the way to the refugee camp … /The Guardian
When Mina Liccione packed her clown’s nose and tap shoes and moved to the Middle East in 2008, she had no real idea how it would turn out.
It turned out like this: driving through the Jordanian desert dressed in striped pull-up socks, mismatched clothes and look-twice spectacles, on her way to an audience of hundreds of Syrian children who hadn’t had a proper laugh in a long time.
“A young boy was peering out from behind a thick sheet being used as a doorway,” Liccione recalls of last summer’s venture by her Clowns Who Care project. “He walked outside slowly, staring at us as we drove in. I remember wondering if he was going to smile. I waved, and he waved back.
“But no smile; not yet anyway.”
Smiles are what she and her Emirati comedian business partner and husband, Ali al-Sayed, live for. The pair, who have been taking their comedy across the Middle East and Africa for seven years, are passionate about bringing joy to communities that may not otherwise find it.
But if you’d asked the couple a few years ago where they would be today, doing comedy charity work in the Middle East would not have been their answer.
“In 2007 I was booked to perform in Dubai as part of an arts festival,” Liccione says. “The trip was meant to be 10 days but it turned into a month as I kept getting hired to compere, teach or perform comedy.
“Everyone I met kept saying there wasn’t enough comedy here and suggested I come back and open the first comedy and urban-arts school in the region.”
Which is what she did in 2008.
“I took a leap of faith and came armed with tap shoes, notebooks packed with material, a clown nose and years of experience,” she says. “Back in Dubai, I started teaching comedy – stand-up, improv and physical comedy – and launched Dubomedy, with my now husband Ali, in April 2008.”
That’s when UAE-born comedian Sayed ditched his corporate job to go funny full time. The Clowns Who Care project came about a year later, when he and Liccione decided to offer support to “centres for children and adults with special needs, senior citizens, charity organisations and hospitals”.
Soon after establishing Clowns Who Care, the pair were invited to Uganda.
“We were helping out at the Live It Up home for rescued children and were so deeply moved by the kids there that we asked what more we could do,” Liccione says. “The director said the kids get bored over the summer, so we organised an arts camp and went back.”
Then, in 2011, the Syrian conflict flared up.
“Our hearts broke while watching the news,” Liccione says. “We desperately wanted to do something, so we decided to take Clowns Who Care to Jordan, which is where many of the Syrian refugee camps are.”
In June 2014, the team – made up of Liccione , Sayed and 10 volunteers, most of them former Dubomedy students – set off to the tented camp of Sahab, about an hour’s drive from Amman to launch Operation: Joy to Sahab. With the help of the global aid agency Mercy Corps, they organised two-day sessions for young people from the 300 families living in the camp at the time.
“When we visit these camps, we do performing-arts workshops with the kids,” Liccione explains. “We incorporate dance, music with recycled objects, physical comedy routines, acrobatics, circus skills and rhythm work.”
And where does the clowning come into it? “We perform for the kids too,” she adds. “Our style of clowning is European, incorporating physical comedy and being a lot more neutral and community oriented, making it more inviting.”
Sayed says the team also does “visual-arts projects with the children, which is why our suitcases are always full of paper, glue, scissors, pipe cleaners, fabric, markers and Polaroid cameras. The guys at airport security must really wonder what kind of holiday we’re going on.”
On the couple’s second trip to Jordan, in December 2014, the team “did a 10-show, 10-workshop marathon in the Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps over three days,” Sayed says. “We wanted to reach as many kids as possible, as well as to help train teachers to continue the work we had started.”
Liccione says that while the opportunity to work with refugees is a blessing, there are tough days. “We were teaching the children to dance in one of the smaller camps when a man who lived in the tent next door came over to watch with his wife and baby girl,” she says.
“After we were done he approached us and, even though he had very little, he insisted on making us tea. We sat and drank with him, which is when he told us his little girl was small for her age because his wife couldn’t breastfeed.
“He went on to explain she was the only child in their family who survived. Walking on foot from Syria meant that many of the refugees froze during the winter of 2014 and didn’t make it to the camps. It was gut-wrenching to hear him speak, yet we couldn’t cry in front of him. He was so proud of what he had left. He came to visit us the next day and watched every workshop with a big smile, his baby girl in his arms.”
Sayed is looking ahead: “We plan on returning to Jordan this summer to work in the Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps, as well as in camps in Lebanon and Turkey. We’re also hoping to branching out to Bangladesh to work with kids from the slums.”
The Clowns Who Care project doesn’t accept monetary donations but does encourage support from volunteers. “The best way to get involved is to email email@example.com,” Liccione says. “We also have a Facebook group for volunteers where we post call-outs and people sign up to help.”