Before bed each night, Sabine walks down to the sea by our house. I am always moved by this ritual, her way of connecting with the families who will be crossing the water by night. The sea can be a terrifying place in the dark, endless and unknown. In February, the wind is often howling. I can’t imagine how scary it must be to climb onto a rubber boat, overcrowded and overloaded! The driver has typically never been aboard a boat before, and now, he must be the captain, while mothers and their babies sit crying and the waves crash against the sides. But, what else are their options? Many people have seen the drone videos of a demolished Syria….rubble and ruin, this is no longer their home. So, these families must find somewhere else that is safe.
Our project on Lesvos has not been what we had thought. The situation here changed just before our arrival, as you can read about in our previous blogs. We could not get a permit for access into Moria camp, so our approach shifted. After many days trying to gain access, we decided to find other means by which we could connect with the refugee population. We shifted our focus from the larger, more planned shows that we are accustomed to as an organization, to smaller, more intimate moments of interaction, with full shows whenever possible. We followed every lead we had and scanned the island for small pockets of people, waiting to make their next move, hoping to offer our style of happiness.
Yesterday, was the day that our luck turned around! Huzzah!!! We rise before the sun and head to the beach. Immediately, we come across a boat that has already unloaded. First responders are with the families as they wait for the bus to pick them up. We send Tamara in to get the OK and heads turn as the clowns round the corner. I start playing our parade tune on my guitar and kazoo, Sabine sends out her bubble greeting, and the entire energy shifts. A few kids are shy at first, peeking out behind a parent’s leg, but it does not take long for them to embrace us. Jan throws a back tuck with precision before stumbling comically about. A few kids begin clapping and dancing to our cheery tune and the smiles start spreading like wildfire. Even the corners of mouths of the aid workers turn up, and they always work so hard to ensure the safety and health of the refugees. After the bus leaves, an aid worker in a green coat tells us “thank you” for bringing tears of joy to her eyes and that what we are doing is so important. They say there are other boats that have arrived, so we quickly load back into the car and look for more activity on the shore.
At the next stop, the families have already loaded onto the bus. Darn! We think that we have missed our chance, but decide to get out and see if the bus will stay a few minutes before pulling away. The second we are in view, a group of children gathered at the back of the bus spot us. They cram against the windows, pointing and laughing at these strange entities and their colorful costumes. Mothers with children not sitting by the windows, rapidly point, excited for their babies to see. A small boy, about 4 years old, has wide set eyes and high, prominent cheekbones. He laughs a deep belly laugh that I can almost hear through the glass. We parade around the bus, hitting all the vantage points. Sabine and I start dancing with our backs towards each other. When we come together our butts bump, mine (which is admittedly bigger) bumping her several feet away. The boy with the wide set eyes is beside himself. An old woman, with her head wrapped in a beautiful purple scarf looks at me with twinkling eyes. She blows a kiss and points her finger at me. I catch it and blow one back to her. Just before the bus pulls away, Sabine climbs aboard, pretending to join them and putting a finger up to her mouth, saying “sshhhh.” The kids lose it, laughing at this clown who is not doing a very good job blending in. As they pull away, we stand waving until they are out of sight, so happy to have gotten to be a part of their journey. These pit stops are brief, but so meaningful. We manage to fit in another further down the shore, where a group gathers to play with us.
Later, we go to the port, where people wait for the evening ferry. It is a large parking lot in the center of Mytiliene, with the huge ships looming nearby and a few small trees speckled amidst the grey of concrete and yellow barriers. The refugee families are huddled on the cement wall with their belongings. Mothers and fathers keep their children close by, as cars and trucks pull in and out of the port. We access the situation, looking for a safe place to perform our show. Our time is ample, as the families will be waiting all day, but we need to be sure we can gather the children in a safe spot, far from the traffic. We find a good place by the locked gate, and lay down our rope to designate the audience line.
We start our song and head towards the crowd, with friendly greetings. After saying our hellos we lead them over to our safe corner of the parking lot. “Come see the show!!!” Sabine calls out in both English and Arabic, and like a line of ducklings, the little ones follow close behind. They sit down by the rope, with smallest in the front and bigger kids behind. One tiny baby with a blue coat and beanie sits the closest, eyeing the snack bag of his nearby companion. I notice a 14 year old girl with long brown hair; she takes on the protective role of setting an example for the little ones. Her kind eyes and a mischievous smile make me happy. I think of myself at that age, always wanting to be with the young ones. I am happy to see her delight in the prospect of watching a clown show, unlike so many teenage girls, far too eager to become women.
Getting to perform our entire show is so satisfying! My favorite moment is when we get to don our newest Superman, a skit where Sabine chooses a volunteer and I put my cape on him, with a red foam nose. Today, she chooses a young boy about 6 years old who wears a teal mask on his face; a trickster. The theme music plays from our speaker and I begin to soar him through the air, flying him above his friends, with Sabine waving the cape behind him.
After the show, we stay to play with bubbles and slap high-fives! I say, “shukrann,” (the Arabic word for ‘thank you’) as I pass down the line. I shake each of their hands, sometimes “getting stuck” with a playful handshake game. The boys laugh out loud and the girls giggle and whisper with each other. I wear a small puppet on the fingers on my right hand, the pink googly eyes bobbing around as it says hello and kisses them on the cheek. A few girls come to give me big hugs and my happiness overflows as they throw all of their weight on me. Sabine makes hearts out of pipe cleaners for the children and puts down a tray of bubble soap for them to use. The pipe-cleaner hearts become bubble wands and I watch in amazement as the children gather excitedly to send their bubbles up to the sky. As they head back to their waiting place and we say goodbye I am overwhelmed with joy. I take a moment behind a truck so that I can allow myself to shed a few tears…I am feeling love, love, love!
Later in the day after lunch, the sun is shining and Mytilene is filled with refugee families. Some people gather on the sidewalks by the boats in the marina, their blankets acting as a temporary, but inadequate shelter. We decide to park our car and do a walk-about. We come across two families with young boys who light up at the sound of the guitar. They run over, eager to play it themselves. One boy, about 7 years old, has great technique and strums the strings with his tiny finger. When I start to form chords on the fretboard, his eyes widen in amazement with each changing note. I laugh out loud and tell him what a great musician he is!
We head further down, back to the port parking lot. Now, there are many more people gathered waiting for the ferry. The kids hear the music coming, see the bubbles, and start yelling in excitement. A group gathers in front of me and I play as fast as I can, my fingers raw from a happy day of strumming. The kids clap and jump up and down laughing. Sabine leads them through a follow the leader dance party and I can’t believe their joy. What a party! I am always in awe by the universal connectivity of music and dance. Now this is what I call happiness.