Clowns Without Borders takes laughter to conflict zones

Good News Notes:

Born in 1993 from the belief that laughter can ease pain, Clowns Without Borders International sends jokesters, mimes and circus specialists to refugee camps, conflict zones and sites of historical tragedies around the world.

Performances have taken place at schools, town squares, ferry terminals, bus stops, beaches and underground shelters, said Naomi Shafer, a clown and executive director of Clowns Without Borders USA. At one site, where bullet holes in the walls reminded visitors that people had once been executed there, a member of the audience called for reclaiming the space.

The shows begin with clowns parading through the camp or town, pulling in audience members as they go. As they arrived at the place that will serve as their stage — often marked only by a rope laid across the dirt — the audience crowds in. Sometimes it might be a town of 25 gathered under a tree, other times it might be thousands from a massive refugee camp. 

The power of the shows, Shafer said, is the way the clowns approach the audience. “That’s really what clowning is about, in any context … In migrant situations, it’s that very simple and powerful reminder: I see you as a human with emotions. I see you as a human with the capacity for laughter and the capacity for joy. I know that you are not defined by the statistics surrounding this tragedy or situation.”

Venezuela native Paúl Gomex, who launched Clowns Without Borders Switzerland and has performed on numerous missions, has seen how the shows lift spirits.

“For once, the community is gathering not to troubleshoot but to celebrate that they’re still there … For once, they’re gathered together in laughter,” Gomex said. “It’s like everyone becomes a mirror of the other, and when you look past the performer, there’s your neighbor who is laughing too.”

One of the best kinds of moments, Shafer said, comes after the clowns finish their routine, when a parent or child steps forward to draw laughs of their own. These days, Clowns Without Borders is trying to encourage more of that, aiming to serve as the opening act and then inviting members of the community to step forward. Some may have been performers before they were displaced, forced to leave their costumes and festivities behind. 

“If you can barely carry a pair of shoes and some clothes and your phone, of course you’re never gonna carry the masks or costumes or props for the yearly dance that they do in your village,” Gomex said.

So, when the clowns wrap up their act, they ask their interpreter to help them invite up anyone who might have a poem, joke, song or dance to share. “We go, ‘OK, guys, there wasn’t a stage here and now there’s a stage here,’” Gomex said. 

As people take the stage to perform their signature characters or dances, their neighbors recognize them, costumed or not. “It’s like the collective soul of the town is coming back to the surface,” Gomex said. “There is this psychological impact on the individual, but the community, as a tissue, as an interconnected organism, I think, also heals with performance.”…

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