Joy to Syrian Refugee Camps: A weekend Comedy Tour
By Mina Liccione
On December 3, 2014 we headed back to Jordan. It was my birthday that weekend and I wanted to spend it doing what I love; making people laugh and giving back with my husband Ali. We planned a vigorous schedule to ensure we reached as many children as possible during our visit. Our mission was to bring joy and laughter to the children living in the Za’atari and Azraq camps by means of a ten show and ten workshop marathon in one weekend.
Day 1: Joy to Azraq Camp
We were picked up in Amman at 8:30 am. It took approximately one hour to get to the camp. Azraq Camp is the home to over 10,000 Syrian refugees and is split into ten sections. We were set to visit five locations that day offering one workshop and one performance at each. Our CWC Activity Days were held inside tented units that act as children’s community centers run by Mercy Corp. and Unicef.
We were greeted with open arms. The staff, and teachers, were very kind and excited to have us there. The regular staff at these areas are trained refugees living in the camp. They took part in the workshops and clapped along during the shows.
Our performance was a physical comedy show complete with classic slapstick, tap dance, body percussion, musical bells, newspaper gag, audience interaction and participation. The dialogue was in Arabic, though I threw in some English words. The movements were exaggerated, the bigger the gesture, or prat fall, the louder they laughed.
We were happily surprised to see some of the Sahab Camp kids, from our last visit, there! They have since been moved to this camp and were very excited to see us. Some even reminded us what we were wearing, and the dance moves we taught them, the last time. The kids loved the show and had A LOT of energy during the performing arts workshops. Spirits and enthusiasm remained very high throughout the day.
Day 2: Joy to Za’atri Camp
We had heard a great deal about Za’atari Camp. It has almost 100,000 residents and is the second largest city in Jordan. Yes, it’s a city! When we drove up to the camp, there was intense security checking our badges and confirming the purpose of our visit. The camp was massive and is split into twelve districts just like The Hunger Games minus the hunger games. We drove down a Main Street that had clothing shops, grocery stores, gadgets, household items, hair salons, you name it! It was very active and busy.
Upon arriving to the children’s gated area, we were taken to a large trailer where our festivities would take place. Many people warned us that the kids would be unruly and aggressive. I have to say, it was quite the opposite!
Due to the high volume, we stayed in one section the entire day. We performed all five shows and five workshops there rotating between large groups of children. As the kids waited for their turn, they entertained themselves in the playground.
The main teacher for that particular community center was a lovely Syrian woman who also lived in the Camp. Her two kids were with her. Her daughter was six years old and her son, one year old. She carried him around as she participated in the workshop all while assisting hundreds of kids despite the fact she had one arm. She was strong, bold, creative and wore a huge smile on her face. She stayed with us all day and said she looked forward to continuing the creative work started. I was very moved by her courageous spirit, playfulness and love for the kids.
Throughout the day we started to notice a few of the same kids kept sneaking in with the next group. Then at the end of the session the two girls said to us “We want to stay again.” So we told them they could be our assistants. They took this seriously. They helped us re-set our props for the next rounds, move the table and chair back to their show positions and even helped seat the kids as they entered.
For the fifth, and final show of that day, a bunch of other repeat attendees snuck in because they heard it was the last performance. At this point they knew the show by heart so we decided to include them. The show had evolved into being all about them. It was beautiful and we could tell that it meant so much to them to be able to be on stage with us. My husband and I are both good improvisers and throughout the last show kept finding new moments to include different kids and see where the comedy took us. It was magical, in the moment, organic, hilarious and can never be repeated again.
After packing up our equipment, we quickly realized we weren’t ready to leave just yet. So, we headed to the playground to clown around with the kids. They also gave us a tour of the community area which included an arts and crafts trailer for the girls and an activity trailer for the boys. There was also a football field that they were very proud of. I’m not sure who had more fun kicking the ball, the boys or Ali?
Saying farewell was the most difficult part of the trip. They all wanted hugs and photos with their tiny peace signing fingers held high in the air. They would pose until you snapped the shot then run over to see how it looked.
We left with very full hearts. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a kid, is simply let them be a kid and join in the fun! Let them play, laugh, jump, cheer, dance, run, clap and of course, be silly! As we drove away all we could think about was “When can we come back? Let’s plan our next visit…”
The entire tour was humbling and heartwarming. It was an honor to be able to bring some joy to these camps and to be welcomed so graciously. Ali and I will cherish each moment and can’t wait to return in January, inshAllah.