Cambodian Circus Troupe Performs For Refugees In Rwanda

Global Arts Corps demonstrates the transformational power of theatre

According to the 2016 UNHCR Global Trends report, 65.3 million people, 51% under the age of 18, were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution in 2015. This staggering figure of dislocation has had an impact on countries targeted for asylum, reaching crisis proportions and surfacing zenophobia, racial prejudice, anti-immigrant sentiments and outbursts, and paranoia about cultural disintegration in the face of the perceived onslaught of “the other.” It has tested the very core of what it is to be humane.

My career passion over the past 24 years has been Counterpart International’s 50-year history and successes in addressing the root causes of conflict such as poverty, competition over economic and natural resources, and social exclusion of ethnic minorities, refugees, and other marginalized groups. Its successes come from enabling all sides of a conflict to agree upon, invest in, and achieve common goals which in turn results in mutual trust and the motivation to replicate and sustain improved quality of life impacts over the longer term.

As a Board member of the Global Arts Corps, I am equally passionate about how it uses the transformative power of theater to surface and examine the psycho-social dynamics of conflict that perpetuate hatred and cycles of revenge from one generation to another and often make null and void peace agreements born of expediency. Led by its Artistic Director, Michael Lessac, the Corps replays and rehearses conflict and reconciliation on stage by giving equal value to the painful memories and lingering fears felt by both victims and perpetrators -- unveiling the humanity in each side to provoke mutual empathy and make consideration of reconciliation even possible. What is unique about the Corps’ methodology is that all productions are co-created by its actors who themselves have lived through the results of the conflict being portrayed.

The Corps’ productions have universal appeal as they touch the hearts and minds of audiences daring to examine what it means to be human facing the loss of loved ones, home and identity. Musical elements of the production further stir emotions and reflection about one’s own buried, or not so buried, prejudices and empathy deficits.

In its most recent production, See You Yesterday, the Corps explores intergenerational trauma from the genocidal Pol Pot era in Cambodia in which more than 2 million Cambodians were killed, the largest number being ethnic minorities, intellectuals and artists.

The Cambodian artists co-creating this production are part of an ensemble of 19 young circus performers trained at the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus school. Many of them are former street children, trying to resurrect “their memory of a history they never lived” according to Lessac, and “creating a show based on their imagination about what their elders went through.”

Working in Battambang, Cambodia, with the Global Arts Corps’ international team of actor/trainers from post-conflict areas around the world for 19 weeks over a period of 4 years, the Cambodian troupe used their world class circus skills to travel back in time, exploring their elders’ experiences under the Khmer Rouge regime.

As their inherited memories were unlocked and began to take shape on the rehearsal stage, a silence between generations was broken... opening up a new relationship between young and old.

In July 2016, after 2 preview performances in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian cast traveled with Global Arts Corps to Rwanda, where they had their world premiere at the Ubumuntu Arts Festival in an amphitheater on the grounds of the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Survivors of two separate civil genocides met across the footlights.

The festival brought together companies from 18 different countries emerging from violent conflict, and the cast was reunited with Global Arts Corps’ South African trainers from their first workshop.

Following the festival premiere, the cast and crew traveled to the Kigeme refugee camp.

The Kigeme refugee camp in southern Rwanda is currently home to over 18,000 displaced people from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, who have fled two decades of civil war and famine in their home country.

An outdoor stage was constructed on a dusty football field, so men, women, and children could gather on the surrounding hills to watch the performances.

The Cambodian cast performed on three consecutive mornings, for audiences
 that swelled from 4,000 to 5,000 to 6,000 with each new performance of See You Yesterday.

A young Rwandan actor from Kigali narrated the Cambodian story for the Congolese, providing historical context for the piece in their local language.

Audience members expressed their hope that, if these young Cambodians--only one generation removed from their elders who grew up in refugee camps--could use theatre and circus to navigate and move beyond the darkest moments of their past, the same might be possible for them and their children.

One young refugee from the camp, an aspiring acrobat trained in the Congo, saw in the production an experience he had lived... having been forced to beat a prisoner when he was a young boy.

After seeing the performance, he reflected, “I thought I was the only one this happened to, but I now know am not the only one ... whoever wants to destroy a nation starts from its youth.”

For the Cambodian performers, it was an extraordinary exchange. They became ambassadors for hope, helping to ease a sense of loneliness and shame among others who had only known their own trauma and suffering.

Before the final performance, a young boy from the refugee camp asked to take the stage and performed his original rap songs as the cast warmed up.

The interaction between the Cambodians and the Congolese was made doubly poignant through the presence of Khuon Det. The Artistic Director and Co-Founder of the Phare Ponleu Selpak and a member of Global Arts Corps’ directing team, Det grew up in a refugee camp on the Thai border after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime. Speaking with a group of elders from the camp, Det shared his own experience, saying, “When we arrived in the camp in our bus and I saw the children running around the vehicle... I did the same when I was in a camp. Because we were so happy to see outsiders... Since I’ve been here, I’m so touched by the similarities in our stories... I’m inspired to continue to do more for people in these kinds of situations... It makes my heart full.

After each performance, the cast conducted workshops with youth from 
the camp who were eager to learn skills in circus and theatre that they could continue to practice after performers had gone. The Corps worked with them for three days.

After the workshops had concluded, one young boy said,
 “I am happy now, and I await your return.” The Corps is presently working to build a partnership with educators from the camp that will allow Global Arts Corps’ trainers to go back and continue working with these young people and their teachers so that they can create a story of their own, using the exercises and techniques the Corps developed in building their own productions.

“When I was teaching at the refugee camp, I was so happy because it was quite an experience and because I also want to be a teacher... being given the opportunity to teach those kids, it was great; I love everything about teaching.” – Sreypov, 18, a member of the See You Yesterday cast.

Global Arts Corps is now seeking partners to tour See You Yesterday to other refugee camps and post-conflict areas around the world, where the Cambodian cast can share their story with others struggling to understand where they’ve come from and find an identity in communities torn apart by violence. Simultaneously, Global Arts Corps is pursuing a new endeavor largely inspired by this Cambodian project that will result in a Summit of “Radical Reconciliation,” bringing together young artists from around the world, all dedicated to exploring the human potential for reconciliation through 
the theatrical arts.


See You Yesterday is a Global Arts Corps production produced in partnership with Phare Performing Social Enterprise, Phare Ponleu Selpak Association, and Amrita Performing Arts.

The Rwandan tour of See You Yesterday was made possible through the generous support of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

For more information on this project, please visit, or contact the organization at