18/10/2016 04:38 BST | Updated 19/10/2017 06:12 BST

Defiance Through Laughter And (Gentle) Clowns

Clowns Without Borders

What a crazy week to be a clown, as the Director of Clowns Without Borders and a performer myself, I can say that with some authority. The spate of "evil clown" sightings has lead many people to ask me if it'll affect our work; not at all. We're clowns! We're resilient, if we get knocked down, we simply dust ourselves off and get back up. It's why after centuries we're still here making people laugh.

That said, Clowns Without Borders operates in particularly unique circumstances. We send professional clowns into crisis zones to share laughter and joy with children living through disasters. I know it sounds bizarre and shouldn't work but it does. I have seen first hand the difference it makes to the lives of children who have lost everything and are struggling to make sense of the world around them.


Clown Marion Duggan at a pop-up camp in Greece, April 2016

This year we have shared nearly 50 clown performances and workshops with children living in the refugee camps that have sprung up all over Europe. The tension and emotions in these sites is often palpable, we can only guess what horrors the children and their families have been through. It is obvious to us that the war in Syria has robbed these children of an essential right, the right to be a child. We try to address this by very deliberately bringing play, laughter, and silliness back into their lives. Who better to do this than clowns?

There's a glorious defiance and playfulness to our work, and to clowning in general, that does not accept crisis or conflict is more powerful than children having the chance to laugh and to experience what it is to be a child free from concern. It's becoming harder and harder for us to access the Military run refugee camps but we continued to find ways to do so because we simply believe all children deserve a childhood characterised by laughter. We've just got back from our third tour to refugee camps in Northern Greece just two weeks ago.


Clowns Without Borders at a Greece refugee camp, May 2016

One of the most powerful aspects of our work is the sense of community it creates. Children stand side-by-side parents and aid-workers, connected through laughter. It's an incredibly humbling and moving experience to arrive at a camp and notice the children are dispersed, not really doing anything and to leave with them playing and sharing recreated scenes from our show with us and anyone else who will watch. The 'slow-motion' race is a definite favourite, followed closely by the 'Dancing Banana'.

Perhaps, this "crazy clown phase" has been created by a perception that all clowns are raucous, outrageous and chaotic. And whilst they can be, our professional clowns are interested in human connection and interaction. This requires sensitivity and awareness. We need to be able to 'read' and gain the trust of the children we work for, letting them know it's safe to laugh; to imagine. In a refugee camp, it's not unusual for us to start a performance with just twenty children and end up with two hundred. The skill to manage unpredictable environments like this so that everyone feels included and involved requires practice and commitment that goes beyond wearing colourful clothes and big shoes.


Clown Leo Kaipiainen, Greece refugee camp, May 2016

Ensuring every child has a positive experience means there's has to be a lot of "method in our madness". Of course, the shows are highly visual and non-verbal but we also create lots of moments for audience interaction that put the children in control. They become the heroes of the scene. Given the levels of powerlessness, all refugee children have experienced creating opportunities for them to be in charge is incredibly important to us.

The fun we bring is only a small part of what refugee children (and adults) need in order to thrive. But we know the laughter we share is important by the way parents come up to us after the show to thank us or through the eagerness of the children to copy us. The big NGOs call it "psycho-social first aid', we think of it as an essential part of what it means to be humans It's why we'll still be visiting refugee camps long after the 'evil clown craze' has been forgotten.

Samantha Holdsworth is director and founder of Clowns Without Borders UK

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