Humane: Do Some Good
Clowns Without Borders
Clowns Without Borders was founded in Barcelona in July 1993. The idea began when Tortell Poltrona, a professional clown in Spain, was invited to perform in a refugee camp in Croatia. This performance unexpectedly attracted an audience of more than 700 children, proving to Poltrona that there is a great need for clowns and entertainment in crisis situations. He founded Clowns Without Borders to offer humor as a means of psychological support to communities that have suffered trauma. Read the UNHCR interview with Tortell Poltrona.
Here’s an excerpt from that interview:
What about the origins of Clowns Without Borders?
I was asked by the children at a school in Barcelona to go to the Istria Peninsula in Croatia to perform for refugee children there [from the Yugoslav Wars of 1991-1995]. The Spanish children were in contact with the refugees through a volunteer programme. From the Istrian Peninsula, the refugees told the Catalan children: "You know what we miss most? We miss laughter, to have fun, to enjoy ourselves." So the Spanish kids asked me to travel there with a troupe and we went [in 1993] by car. The children in Barcelona raised funds to pay for the trip and they came with us to Croatia – a group of 12-year-old children. After that first experience for the proto Clowns without Borders, we started to tell other clowns in Spain about our experience and set up a collective. In the first year [1993-1994], we organized 12 expeditions to the Balkans.
We began in Istria and after that we went to Mostar [in Bosnia and Herzegovina]. We received help from UNHCR and Spanish troops serving there, who provided transport to reach more children in the area . . . And later, Clowns Without Borders began to perform in Sarajevo, and always in refugee camps. All of our volunteers are professional circus artists and they fly out once a year and spend 20-25 days in the field with two or three shows a day.
When we started, it might have seemed like a joke to some people. An NGO with clowns in the middle of a war! It was surreal. At first we wondered what we were doing, but after the first experience it was such a powerful and emotional feeling. There was a very warm welcome and the visit was very helpful for the children.
When did the movement start growing?
After 1994, a Clowns Without Borders section opened and then clowns set up official national sections in the USA, Sweden, Belgium, South Africa, Canada, Ireland, Germany and France. We are trying to set up an international federation. But they are all clowns, so it's difficult to organize anything.
One of the things that I remember from the early expeditions was that after we did a performance, people from different ethnic groups would eat together. This made me start to think about the power of the nose. In 2007, during a mission to the [ethnically divided] town of Mitrovice in Kosovo, Serbian and Kosovar [Albanian] children sat together for the first time to watch our show. They went to the same school, but the Serbs studied in the morning and the Kosovars in the afternoon. Thanks to Clowns Without Borders, they sat together.
Another time, I arrived in Sri Lanka 10 days after the Indian Ocean tsunami [of December 26, 2004] with Médecins Sans Frontières. We performed on the first day of the school term at a high school where only 700 of the 1,500 children survived the tsunami. After the performance, the director came and said,
"People have brought mattresses, blankets and medicine, but until now nobody gives us life. You let us laugh and smile and you give us life."
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