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Smiling in War Times: Clowns without Borders

Lunes 4 Febrero 2013

For them, smile of a child is a very serious thing. Wherever they go, they distribute unique humanitarian assistance: food for the soul.


The Balkans have been a zone of conflict for years when a group of 3 comics decided to travel to the area in order to offer an escape to the children affected by the war.  That spring expedition led to the creation of an NGO that today is present on 5 continents and works with hundreds of clowns throughout the world.  The organization strives to get UNESCO to recognize the smile of children as a “World Heritage”  They challenged the danger of war and go where natural disasters devastate towns.  “Clowns without Borders” takes smiles seriously and wherever they go they distribute unique humanitarian assistance: food for the soul.

*(This Journalistic piece was originally published in 2005 – In 2006 the article was awarded by Madrid's Press Association (APM)

By: Cristina Ávila-Zesatti/ Barcelona   
Translated by: Heather Homesley and Erin DeBell



Monday 3, 2003.  Day 14.  Baghdad“One of the funniest things was to ask for the safest way to get to Baghdad.  We finally arrived to the refugee camp and the head of the expedition told us that it was best not to perform there because some 3 thousand children who have never seen a clown would come and it could be dangerous.  We had been standing up since 5:30 in the morning and we could not even carry our passports because we were going to pass through a very dangerous place where they had just killed an American soldier.  We went to another camp and the afternoon was filled with magic.  We did a different show and everyone enjoyed it greatly.  We finished the show with the public singing “Happy Birthday” in Arabic.  It was in the middle of the desert and the girls were wearing their colorful dresses and their bright smiles.  To make the moment stand out even more, just then, the sun disappeared between the stores…What more could one ask for in a day?”


This is the diary of a clown written during his trip to Iraq in June 2003.  Throughout the text all the ingredients to write a story of adventure, tragedy, or comedy are included, but above all a story of hope. 

The story is the diary of a dreamer that gave a face to the reality of war.  Pepe Viyuela, the author, wrote in his diary: “Seeing children who have missed arms or legs playing and smiling again for at least an hour outside of the orphanage, is incredible for anybody.”   

Clowns without Borders is what they call themselves and the name of the organization.  It sounds like a joke, but the organization is indeed very serious.  They have travelled to Asia where the tsunami struck and to Morocco.  They have a mission in Palestine and have begun a permanent school for the circus in Nicaragua.  In Namibia and Equatorial Guinea they work with shows that raise awareness about the AIDS problem, and in the Sahara, a region that is mostly Muslim, the “buffoonery” of the actors focuses on women’s rights.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you: The Clowns!”   

Pepe Viyuela is a renowned comic in Spain, among other things for having starred in the comedy “Mort & Phil.”  He has presided over the organization for a year and has travelled to Iraq, Kosovo, and Palestine.  During an interview with Peace Correspondence he told us: “In the beginning we had to overcome the rejection because the people thought our name was a joke to the solidarity movement that in that moment was in its height.  It seemed that the other NGOs had more serious tasks and carried to the places that needed it the most basic things like food, clothes, medicine while our help was extremely volatile, hard to touch or measure.  Everybody needs to laugh, but to justify this before a politician or solicitor is difficult.  It is difficult to quantify and to say how much a smile is worth.  And that is precisely our mission: to make the world understand that a child’s happiness has no price.  No one can say how much their own smile is worth and much less the smiles of others.”

They say that all the big projects came from dreams, but in the case of Clowns without Borders, the truth is that it was a hard reality that gave origin to fantasy: the sad reality of war.

In 1993 Europe witnessed the traumatic disintegration of Yugoslavia with a certain indifference.  A group of 3 clowns headed by Jaume Mateu, the organization’s founder, decided to travel to a refugee camp in Croatia to give a free performance to the children confined by the ethnic persecution.

That vision startled them and a month later, in March of that same year, the initiative of this organization was born.  To this day, 16 years after the first expedition, it continues to be the only one of its kind.

“More than an organization, I believe that we have become a movement” said Jaume Mateu, who just turned 50 and has dedicated himself to the circus world since the 70’s.

“Tortell Poltrona” is his artistic name and he combines his work with Clowns without Borders with a travelling circus that goes through some regions of Spain, as well as with a production center and school of circus arts where he teaches children and adults.  “The laughter and the crying show us that we are not very different, and sometimes the only difference is a question of luck, of being on one side of the planet and the other side is luckier.  For us, the clowns, there is only one world: the world of happiness.  The first and third world are just classifications that were invented and remained established almost like perversions.  As a clown, I assure you that it does not please me that there are children not laughing.”

To face the disaster: A world circus

For humanitarian aid organizations, the current situation allows no time for a break.  The world is plagued with wars, conflicts, hordes of displaced people, forgotten sick people, and hungry and marginalized people.  These are so called “the human disasters” and do not include the temperamental strength of Mother Nature who tends to strike in the most unprotected areas.

In this sense, the ‘clown’s capacity’ to answer the call for help has been notable, and this ONG has crossed borders.  Its headquarters is in Barcelona and according to the webpage there are three other offices in Spain.  A little more than a decade after its start they have opened offices in many European countries including France, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, and Ireland.  There are other offices in Canada, the United States, and South Africa.  The companies of clowns and local actors that represent the ONG in Africa, the Americas, and Asia are in the hundreds. 

For example, in Latin America the clowns have presence in Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Haiti, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Guatemala, and Mexico, where a group of puppeteers called Saltimbanqui does the “Caravan of Laughs” throughout Mexico, but focuses on Chiapas, where Spain’s Clowns without Borders went for the first time during the worst moments of the Zapatista conflict in 1995.

From those first three expeditions to the Balkans the red noses keep multiplying.  The database in the central office has more than 800 artists with a large number on the waiting list.  They would have to add an average of –at least- 100 clowns in each country.  All the volunteers are available to travel and enter into action and create magic and happiness where war or natural disasters have frightened children.  

Dolores Castelló, Operations Coordinator for Clowns without Borders says, “Actually we are a small organization.  Our annual budget is $833,560 (600 thousand Euros) which in comparison to other NGOs is really small.  Besides action in Europe we support projects in other countries with fewer resources.  Financing comes from more than 1,000 individual members.  Also, we look for ways to make money by the clowns putting on free shows and selling souvenirs like T-shirts and red noses.  Sometimes we receive donations from children that collected money at their parties or from schools that do the same thing with the resources from an event.”

Yes… the Show ‘Must Go On…’

Although the primary mission of these clowns is to bring laughter where it is missing, it is certain that they have also accepted the task of denunciation and social activism: “When we get back to Europe the second part of our job starts, which is bringing society’s attention to what we have seen and telling them about what is happening,” Dolores states.  “Because when tragedies happen far away, they seem less tragic to us.  So we use to close our eyes and turn off the TV.

The specific experience of the Tsunami in Asia gave a different perspective to this issue, because many European tourists died there.  Clowns without Borders went to the disaster area, answering the call of Doctors without Borders, who discovered that in addition to medical material assistance, the inhabitants also needed psychological relief to overcome the tragedy and the magnitude of this natural disaster.  Jaume Mateu was present during this trip with other clowns from various countries:

“We encountered a devastating situation: the traumas that the children had made us implement a special show to combat hydrophobia since there were children in the process of dehydration who refused to drink water or have any sort of contact with it. Half of the students had died at one of the schools where we acted.  It was shocking.  But it ended up turning into a really magical experience, since that was the first time a circus had come to that region. Can you imagine it?!.

The positive part of this disaster is that in that place and at that time, there were many Europeans with cameras and, as always, a picture is worth a thousand words. 

In addition to carrying out other projects in central areas where CWB frequently goes such as Africa and Palestine, Clowns without Borders will go back to Asia and still hopes to be able to reenter Iraq, where they haven’t been able to return since April of 2005 due to the growing insecurity in that zone.

“Double flip in the air without fear of the ridiculous” 

In the meantime, they continue to press forward with a campaign they started several years ago.  A campaign for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to declare “the smile of a child as a World’s Heritage.”

How to achieve this?  It is easy and complicated at the same time: For this challenge, Clowns without Borders ‘collects smiles’, symbolically placed in a cardboard box that they give out at their functions.

“It is a a crazy campaign that is difficult to achieve,” laughs Jaume Mateu, the founder.  “But I say, why work so hard to take care of artifacts of the past if we aren’t taking care of the heart’s citizens of the future?”

Mateu, the founder of Clowns without Borders, is nonetheless convinced that there are still many masks to take off for the world: “I am happy when those children are happy, but it saddens me to go back and see how far we are from reality.  I feel indebted to each place I visit.”

And if Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières MSF- won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for their humanitarian efforts, the clown with the red nose gets serious when talking about the issue: “Without any doubt, the best prize would be for Clowns without Borders to disappear, due to a lack of sad places in the world to go to start a show.”






Medicine, Laughter, and Politics: The (enormous) power of a smile…

In 1998 Robin Williams starred in the movie “Patch Adams.”  Based on the true story of Doctor Hunter Adams, creator of the “Gesundheit Institut” (health in Germany) and promote
r of a unique therapeutic method based on humor and happiness.

Adams , 66 years old, has been a doctor since 1971.  Over the past few decades he has developed theories to prove that a person’s health is related to their mental state, as well as to their family, community, and the world in general.

In 2002 he starred in Afghanistan in the documentary, “A Clown in Kabul,” which shows a doctor’s trip to this zone that was devastated by bombs from the United States.  On that occasion, he strongly criticized the policies of George W. Bush and assured the press that “in the movie which Hollywood dedicated to me, they refused to talk about my political persona, but my laughter and my humor cannot be disconnected from my political attitude.  The world should give leadership positions to grandmothers and everything would work itself out.”

He has also travelled with groups of clowns to Bosnia, Africa, Cuba, Mexico and more recently, to the zone destroyed by the Tsunami, which caused 300 thousand deaths on December 26, 2004.  His institute is located in West Virginia: it is free and combines traditional medical treatments, alternative therapies and representative arts.
 




Traducción hecha por Heather Homesley and Erin DeBell
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