CORK’S craic troops are back from a tour of duty in the refugee camps of Greece, including the infamous Moria camp on the island of Lesbos.
A team of four members of Clowns Without Borders Ireland (CWBI), including two Cork-based clowns, returned from their whirlwind two week, 20-show tour of Lesbos and Athens recently.
Over coffee, Rosie O’Regan and Jimmy Bray say it’s taking time to process and reflect on everything they saw on their trip.
And, for Jimmy, it’s straight back to work: Corkonians may not think they know the circus performer and actor, but anyone who’s been bringing their children to GLOW in Bishop Lucey Park may have spotted a jolly snowman in costume entertaining kids: that’s Jimmy.
“I’m still processing all the things that happened in Greece,” he says.
“We did 20 shows in two weeks. There were a lot of kids, living in a lot of different conditions. In some places it was like a big playground and they were in school and they had 20 other kids they were practically like family with, but then there were other places where it was like, how could any adult or child live here?”
Greece has been on the front- line for refugees and migrants arriving in the EU from Middle East conflict zones including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, who often cross the Aegean sea from Turkey.
Thousands of refugees spend months or even years awaiting processing in camps in Greece, including in the infamous Moria camp on the island of Lesbos.
More than 5,000 refugees live in cramped, tough conditions in the camp: refugees sleep in a combination of converted containers and tents. Clowns Without Borders performed in an area of the camp reserved for Moria’s many unaccompanied minors.
Actress and clown Rosie O’Regan, originally from Douglas, said the conditions in the camp can be upsetting to see, but that the responses of children to the clowns’ antics makes it all worthwhile.
“It would be hard to pick just one stand-out moment,” she says. “It’s all very emotional, both good and sad. All the camps had a lot of barbed wire and there was a real sense of being caged, I suppose. And that’s not a good thing for any human being to have to experience.
“We performed in an enclosed space for unaccompanied minors, so obviously safety there was really important and some of the security measures are to protect the children, but all the gates and barbed wire made a very stark environment, like a prison.”
Clowns Without Borders is an international organisation with branches in 13 countries, who partner with aid agencies like UNHCR and Plan International to provide comic relief to traumatised children in war-torn countries and refugee camps.
A total of 50 professional Irish performers are involved in CWBI, with branches in Cork, Galway and Belfast.
Previous tours of duty for Irish clowns have included Jordan, Iraq and Palestine, as well as domestically in Direct Provision centres.
Jimmy and Rosie travelled to Greece as part of a team of four, with fellow Irish clowns Sam Meyler and Kim McCafferty.
Jimmy, who’s currently studying on Kinsale College of Further Education’s drama course and who has been juggling and clowning since 18, says conditions varied hugely in the different camps they visited during their tour.
“Our first show was in One Happy Family community centre on Lesbos,” he says. “They have English and Greek lessons and the young adults and teenagers get to run it in a semi-autonomous way.
“They get tokens for drinks and food so there’s a little allowance while they’re there too.”
The group devised a non-verbal show calledbased on a kind of slapstick, universal humour that could transcend cultural or linguistic differences amongst the children they performed to, who have arrived in Greece from a variety of countries of origin, mostly in the Middle East and East Africa.
Often they have endured a frightening sea-crossing to arrive at the camp and may also be traumatised by war or other dangers in their countries of origin.
Fly was rehearsed in the Triskel Arts Centre and Cork Circus Factory and was directed by Cormac Mohally from The Lords of Strut.
“We previewed the show in the Triskel to adults, even though it’s a kids’ show,” Jimmy says. “So it was really great to put it on for kids for the first time. The children were laughing and awe-struck.”
Jimmy has been on one previous tour with CWBI, also to Lesbos, but it was Rosie’s first time. It can be an emotionally overwhelming experience, she says, but performing up to three shows a day kept her busy.
“At times the things that you see are hard, but it’s also really busy, so you just get on with it: there isn’t really a lot of time for it to sink in,” Rosie says. “It’s after you’re back home you can think about it.”
“When you arrive in a camp the kids come over straight away, and you’re just in play mode with them immediately, but I definitely found leaving in the evening hard on a couple of occasions,” she says.
Against a background of the physical perils of war and the day-to-day struggle to survive in crowded camps filled with strangers, some may find it hard to imagine that clowns could be providing an essential service for children who have suffered so much.
But Rosie says the gift of laughter is a vital one.
“For certain their essential needs must be met, but once they are, laughter is a powerful medicine,” she says.
“The value of the work that we do is we let children be children. They can forget for a little where they are and what’s going on and just have fun.”