BAR ELIAS, Lebanon — The Syrian children sat in guarded silence as the clowns tumbled out in a blur of colorful polka dots and suspenders, then burst into laughter as one of the performers kicked her glittery high heels into the air to the toots of a blue trombone.
One of the clowns strummed a guitar while gliding around on stilts. Another, his face painted like a sad mime, juggled three white globes in the air in a show set against the backdrop of a makeshift tent camp in Lebanon.
For the 50 or so children in attendance, all of them refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria, the clowns provided a brief escape from the horrors they’ve seen and the challenges of growing up far from home. They are among the more than 1 million Syrians who have flooded into Lebanon over the past three years, fleeing a war that has ripped apart their homeland.
One of the performers, Sabine Choucair, said clowning around is the best thing you can do for people fleeing a war zone “who are feeling unsafe, who are feeling unhappy, and feeling horrified.”
“I think the only philosophy behind this is having fun,” she added.
The 45-minute show in a camp in Bar Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, was put on by Clowns Without Borders, an international humanitarian group that uses laughter to help those suffering from the trauma of armed conflict.
Aid groups are struggling to meet the needs of the estimated 2.7 million refugees who have fled Syria, most of them women and children. With resources stretched, providing food, shelter and other basics often comes ahead of treating the less visible psychological wounds.
But for some refugees, cracking a smile and breaking into full-throated laughter is an important part of healing.
“People ask, ‘Is clowning worthwhile? Should we spend money on clowning?’ I look at the show today and say yes,” said 34-year-old David Clay, a volunteer joined by Choucair, Chilean Claudio Martinez and fellow American Luz Gaxiola.
“In crisis situations it’s easy to forget how to (laugh),” Clay said.
In Haiti, where he volunteered with Clowns Without Borders after a devastating earthquake in 2010, laughter helped heal even the most traumatized, Clay said, describing how doctors struggled for months to reach children deeply shaken by the ordeal, while clowns got through to them in minutes.
“I have been in hospitals where children were so shocked in the head they wouldn’t speak or react to anything. We came and for the first time they smiled,” he said.
In Bar Elias the show was a hit, with the children clapping excitedly at the end of every trick. When the clowns finished the show and tried to pack up, the children demanded that they join them in an impromptu dance.
“We used to only hear the sound of missiles, and shelling and the war,” said Amina Umm Said, 40, a Syrian Palestinian who watched the show. “We need festivals like this one to push the fear from our hearts and minds.”
Bilal al-Sharqawi, a shy 10-year-old from Daraa, the southern Syrian city where the uprising began, sheepishly explained how the show brought a little bit of joy: “Today was better than yesterday. Today there was a show. Yesterday, we just played football.”