Colm O’Grady ran into a spot of bother in Jerusalem in 1996. Straying into a rough area of town, the acrobat and student nurse found himself set upon by children throwing rocks. In a potentially life-threatening situation, O’Grady’s response may seem unusual; instead of running or becoming aggressive, he picked up some of the projectiles and started juggling.
“The kids gathered around me and I ended up playing basketball with them, and helping them with their homework. We made friends. I remember walking away and thinking, ‘that’s the power of clowning.’” O’Grady’s realisation about the healing power of humour led to his involvement with Clowns Without Borders, an international organisation with branches in 13 countries that partner with aid agencies like UNHCR and Plan International to provide comic relief to traumatised children in war-torn countries and refugee camps, as well as in marginalised communities where children’s ability to play has been impacted by poverty or social exclusion.
A bunch of clowns may not seem like an immediate necessity for children who have often barely escaped war with their lives, but their work is widely recognised to be vital in rehabilitating children through play. “What we do is called psychosocial first aid,” O’Grady says. “It’s emotional relief through laugher. Circus is a tool that goes beyond boundaries and beyond ideas of what war is. It’s a light in the darkness, and we visit some areas where that light is really diminishing.” The work may bring light but it can take its toll, and O’Grady becomes emotional while telling a story to illustrate how important the work of the clowns can be: a volunteer who was caring for a little girl in a Nepalese orphanage reported how, repeatedly awakened in the night by recurring nightmares of abuse she had suffered, the child would sing a song she had heard in the Clowns Without Borders show to comfort herself.
Now, 50 professional Irish circus performers are involved with Clowns without Borders (CWB) Ireland, with bases in Cork, Belfast and Galway. “We bring dreams to kids who live in a nightmare,” O’Grady says. “Some of the children have experienced such deep trauma that it’s like someone has woken them up when they see a show.” O’Grady says that the Irish clowns have a deep understanding of the unifying benefits of CWB’s work because of our own history. “Ireland is very particular because we come from a warzone. I lived and worked in Belfast for any years,” he says. Belfast Community Circus, founded 25 years ago, has a particularly strong background in using humour to heal the rift between communities after generations of bitter division. Several members also work with CWB Ireland.
The charity, which is run on an entirely voluntary basis, get some funding from Culture Ireland, the organisation that promotes Irish arts worldwide, but also relies heavily on donations.
Some of Ireland’s craic troop of clowns, like O’Grady and Irish co-founder Jonathan Gunning, are hardened veterans and have seen many tours of duty in countries like Kosovo, Rwanda and Nepal, but the humanitarian crisis of Syria’s ongoing war is flooding the Middle East with people fleeing conflict and CWB Ireland’s most recent April tour was to Jordan, where an all-female team of four performers visited four refugee camps and reached 3,300 children and their families.
Laura Ivers was on her first international tour in Jordan. In two weeks, they performed 18 shows and five workshops in some of the largest camps set up to house the huge numbers of civilians fleeing across the border to escape bombardment in Syria. “You get in and you have a show to do and you have quite a tight schedule, but it’s in the moments after the show when everyone wants to take their photo with you and say hello and shake your hand that you really do feel the joy,” Ivers says.
“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” Danish humourist Victor Borge used to say, and while CWB Ireland use this quote as a motto, they also work hard to devise shows that are culturally sensitive and universal. Ivers and fellow performers Niamh McGrath, Sara Cwojdzinski, and Leonie McDonagh were directed by an internationally celebrated Arabic clown for their visit.
“Our show was about Teta, which means grandmother, and the Habibis, which is an Arabic term of endearment often used for children,” Ivers says. “We stuck with some simple scenarios, like Teta wanting the children to go to sleep but the Habibis wanting to play, or she’d make them do chores. It really transfers because it’s day to day life and humans are the same the world over.” Watching the children light up in response to the Habibis’ antics was particularly poignant on a visit to the vast Zaatari camp, which houses 80,000 displaced Syrian people. In the Doctors Without Borders tent, injured children and adults were wheeled in to see the show. “Some of them had limbs missing and were in wheelchairs and even hospital beds,” Ivers says. “We did a much gentler show but the reaction was huge and we had people clapping along. One of the nurses of a little boy in a wheelchair came up and said, ‘Thank you so much, I’ve seen a change in him from the start of the show to the end of the show and that change is going to stay with him.’” As well as Zaatari, the troup performed in Azraq, where 40,000 residents live, and two smaller camps, as well as for groups of refugee children who have settled outside the camps in urban parts of Jordan and may be experiencing difficulties integrating. “A lot of people who have been displaced have become disconnected from their ability to laugh,” Ivers says, “But I was struck by the resilience of humanity and how people can thrive in any situation.” Residents, who may have been housed in portable buildings for years, are desperate to hold on to some semblance of normality for their families. “We were told that even though when it rains in Zaatari the streets turn to mud, that people are very house-proud and keep their homes in immaculate condition,” Iyers says. “There’s a very strong work ethic too; they set up small businesses, things like bicycle shops and market stalls, inside the camps.” CWB Ireland are currently preparing for their next tour to Iraq in September, when they will visit Syrian refugee camps as well as displaced Kurds and Iraqis but they also work domestically with marginalised groups; Iyers and her fellow clowns have done shows in direct provision centres and the charity is planning to work with Focus Ireland to reach out to homeless children.