Beirut-based theater company brings joy and laughter to Syrian refugees’ lives

Clown Me In has performed worldwide. (Supplied photo)
Updated 23 June 2019

Beirut-based theater company brings joy and laughter to Syrian refugees’ lives

  • Sabine Choucair and Gabriela Munoz founded Clown Me In in 2008, which performs and organizes workshops for vulnerable people
  • Initially people wanted Choucair to do clowning for children's birthdays while she wanted to use it for a social cause

BEIRUT: Sabine Choucair, a professional clown, is on a mission to spread light relief to Syrian refugees and vulnerable people worldwide. She discovered her true calling when she learned the art of clowning while studying theater in the UK.

“I found it (clowning) magical. I found the answer to why I really wanted to do theater and how to use it with people,” she said.

Soon enough, Choucair and her friend Gabriela Munoz founded Clown Me In in 2008, a Beirut-based theater company that performs and organizes workshops for refugees and other disadvantaged communities worldwide.

More than 5.6 million Syrians have fled their war-torn country as refugees, according to the UN.

Half of them are children, many of whom now live in Lebanon and other neighboring countries, where temporary settlements have become home to tens of thousands of refugees who have stayed for years. Having experienced civil war as a child, Choucair understands the hardships that these children face every day.

“I know exactly how these kids feel and what they’ve gone through. Going to a refugee camp is very special for me,” she said.




Professional clown Sabine Choucair. (Supplied PHOTO)

But it was not easy introducing clowning in Lebanon. People wanted her to do clowning for children’s birthdays, while she wanted to use it for a social cause. She decided to invest her time and money into growing her company and making clowning a known art. “I sent proposals to 70 different organizations to tell them about the importance of clowning,” she said.

Her hard work paid off. Today, Clown Me In is one of Lebanon’s largest clowning groups, bringing performances to people who need it the most. The group has performed around the world for Mexican, Lebanese, Palestinian, Indian, Moroccan, Jordanian, Brazilian, Greek and British communities.

In November 2015, Choucair travelled to Lesbos, Greece, to perform with the non-profit group Clowns Without Borders for the influx of refugees arriving at the island. “I broke. It was so sad. People weren’t finding their relatives. We’re also human beings, but it didn’t stop us from performing,” she said. “On the contrary, it was important for us to be there, to bring joy to the people and children who really need it.”

There is usually a common feeling of hopelessness and despair in most refugee camps, but when the clowns begin their performance there is an instant change in energy, from stillness to joy, said Choucair, adding: “It’s magical despite the misery.” Clown Me In also uses clowning to raise awareness of social issues such as children’s rights, education, early marriage and the environment.

Now they are working on organizing a “trashion” show to talk about garbage, which is not only a problem in Lebanon, but also in the Middle East and across the world. The audience tends to be receptive to the ideas and messages being conveyed during these performances, said Choucair.

“People listen more and pay attention when they’re not being attacked. They also accept things better when they’re happy. Play and laughter can do wonders,” she added. Choucair was recently invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she organized a workshop on dealing with loss and talked about the importance of play at work.

“It was an amazing experience. It’s not only important to be there, but it’s also important to be active and get the message out about the importance of clowning,” she said.

With the global refugee crisis not going away anytime soon, Choucair believes that we need clowning today more than ever.

“We need more of this in the region and in the world, because we don’t have enough of it. We all need more joy,” she said.

 

This report is part of a series being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.

 


South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

Updated 12 July 2020

South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

DHAHRAN: An online backlash has forced the matrimonial website Shaadi.com to take down an ‘skin color’ filter which asked users to specify their skin color using descriptors such as fair, wheatish or dark. The filter on the popular site, which caters to the South Asian diaspora, was one of the parameters for matching prospective partners.

Meghan Nagpal, a Toronto-based graduate student, logged on to the website and was appalled to see the skin-color filter. “Why should I support such archaic view [in 2020]?” she told Arab News.

Nagpal cited further examples of implicit biases against skin color in the diaspora communities – women who are dark-skinned are never acknowledged as “beautiful” or how light-skinned South Asian women who are mistaken as Caucasian consider it a compliment.

“Such biases stem from a history of colonization and the mentality that ‘white is superior’,” she said.

When Nagpal emailed the website’s customer service team, she received the response that “this is what most parents require.” She shared her experience on a Facebook group, attracting the attention of Florida-based Roshni Patel and Dallas-based Hetal Lakhani. The former took to online activism by tweeting the company and the latter started an online petition.

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“Now is the time to re-evaluate what we consider beautiful. Colorism has significant consequences in our community, especially for women. People with darker skin experience greater prejudice, violence, bullying and social sanctions,” the petition reads. “The idea that fairer skin is ‘good’ and darker skin is ‘bad’ is completely irrational. Not only is it untrue, but it is an entirely socially constructed perception based in neo-colonialism and casteism, which has no place in the 21st century.”

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“When a user highlighted this, we were thankful and had the remnants removed immediately. We do not discriminate based on skin color and our member base is as diverse and pluralistic as the world,” a spokesperson said.

“If one company starts a movement like this, it can change minds and perceptions. This is a step in the right direction,” said Nagpal. Soon after, Shaadi.com’s competitor Jeevansathi.com also took down the skin filter from its website.

Colorism and bias in matrimony is only one issue; prejudices are deeply ingrained and widespread across society. Dr. Sarah Rasmi, a Dubai-based psychologist, highlights research and observations on how light skin is an advantage in society.

The website took down the skin filter following backlash.

“Dark skin tends to have lower socio-economic status and, in the US justice system, has been found to get harsher and more punitive sentences.

“These biases for fair as opposed to dark skin comes from colonial prejudices and the idea that historically, light skin has been associated with privilege, power and superiority,” she said.

However, in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter protests, change is underway.

Last month, Johnson & Johnson announced that it will be discontinuing its skin whitening creams in Asian and Middle Eastern markets, and earlier this month Hindustan Unilever Limited (Unilever’s Indian subsidiary) announced that it will remove the words ‘fair, white and light’ from its products and marketing. To promote an inclusive standard of beauty, it has also renamed its flagship Fair & Lovely product line to Glow & Lovely.

“Brands have to move away from these standards of beauty and be more inclusive so that people – regardless of their color, size, shape or gender – can find a role model that looks like them in the mass media,” said Dr. Rasmi.