Laughing in the face of danger

LLAST WORD: Laughing in the face of danger


Monday, 6th April, 2015

Due to the ongoing conflict, is estimated that half the population of Syria are now displaced, wandering the borders, searching for a safe haven. Jordan borders Syria and it has welcomed millions of refugees into its camps since the conflict began. It is there that Cavan lady KIM MCCAFFERTY will travel this week with ‘Clowns Without Borders’ to bring laughter, love and plenty of hijinks to the children of war. Here she tells JENNY MCGOVERN of the grim reality of refugee camps, why it’s not just kids who seek the clowns out for a giggle, and the empowering message behind a woman treading throwing custard pies…

Kim sounds tired but enthusiastic when The Anglo-Celt speaks to her late Sunday night. She has spent the past two days ‘flat out’ in gruelling rehearsals with her fellow clowns, putting together a brand new show in preparation for their upcoming tour of Jordanian refugee camps. She admits that there is a lot to think about in the creation of this show.

Jordan 15

“Being on the country borders of Jordan, with refugees from Syria and Palestine there will be no language in our performance, our Arabic is pretty minimal and we have to be sensitive to cultural differences for example the males not touching the females. There are four of us in the show and we have never worked together, but you know what, it’s going amazingly well. It’s myself and three lads and they’re very funny boy-os indeed.”

Twenty years ago a clown named Tortell Poltona travelled from Barcelona to war-torn Croatia to present his act in a refugee camp, and in this way Clowns Without Borders (CWB) was born. When CWB was set up in Ireland in October 2006 Kim was in college studying French and Spanish. She had been involved in youth drama for years and had recently taken up juggling for fun, so she knew that some day she would love to join the merry troupe.

“I originally heard about CWB ten years ago and I remember thinking ‘wow-sign me up’. The idea of bringing a bunch of clowns into a warzone, climbing over the barbed wire and bringing a silliness and hijinks to children living in poverty was amazing to me. After leaving college I did a bit more ‘clowning around’, I became more serious about juggling, acrobatics and did a lot more acting work, then I suppose I just dived headfirst into the circus world. I soon made contact with CWB asking how could I become a part of the team? How do I get myself into a war zone for a bit of messing?” she laughs.

Stark conditions
Kim joined CWB Ireland in 2013. A short time later she made her first trip to Jordan and now she is about to embark on her second tour.
Speaking of her previous experience in the refugee camps she says, “It’s a totally different world. It’s definitely shocking. You go there with the idea you’re creating a happy show that will cheer people up; when you arrive the reality hits you. These people are living in such stark conditions. Personally I think the thing that shocked me the most was that the people there are just like you or I. There’s people there who’ve gone to college, there’s guys who’ve travelled the world. You see so clearly that if conflict like this happened in Ireland, we’d be in the same boat as them, there’s no difference other than location. There are engineers, journalists and lecturers all living in these camps, displaced. They’re just people who had to leave their country for safety. These people don’t know if they’ll ever get back home. It could be next week, in the next five years or they might never return. The ‘lucky’ ones make it out of the refugee camps and get asylum status in Jordan where they can attempt to then live a normal life, but they’ve still had to leave family, friends, businesses in Syria that they may never see again.”
According to UNICEF by the end of 2015 the lives of over 8.6 million children across the region of Syria will have been torn apart by violence. Four years of conflict has turned Syria into one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a child. Kim mentions an article she read the other day about the children of Syria.

“I read that the first thing that Syrian children do in the morning is look up at the sky. If it’s a beautiful, clear day they know that means there will be bomb attacks that afternoon. It’s awful that people, especially children have to live with that fear.”

Stage invasion
The ethos of CWB is “no child without a smile” but of course adults come to the performances as well.
“We always find that at shows adults cram into the back of the tent, they’re safe in these camps but there is a lot of waiting around as paperwork is established for everyone and people get bored. Any sort of entertainment is a welcome relief. Some camps we visit have separate women’s centres for women who have escaped from really traumatic situations. The women there vary in age from teenagers to grannies and they’ve been through terrible circumstances, for these shows we often need to tone things down in order not to frighten them. But most of the time we go in under the impression that the kids just need to let off steam. They just need to be kids, and play and have fun. I remember that at one of the last shows we did there was a stage invasion, almost 500 kids ran to the stage to play with the balls and the props, they were having fun, being ‘normal’ kids and it was amazing to see,” she said.
“It’s a great feeling performing for the kids in the camps,” Kim enthuses. “They’re brilliant kids, they’re pure craic and they’re really up for a laugh. They’re not standing there sighing ‘oh I’ve seen this before, oh I’ve seen better’,” she laughs.
This show is called ‘Up’ and in the performance all four clowns are called ‘Habibi’ which is the Arabic word for friend, brother or mate. The idea of the performance is to show that they’re all equal.
“We don’t speak in the performance, and we don’t have a message to preach, it’s just pure fun. We’re showing the kids that we’re big stupid, idiotic fools, come and have a laugh with us.”

Kim is the only girl in the troupe, a role which she takes great pride in.
“My character is the ‘cleverest’ of the stupid clowns, I suppose I’m sort of like the ‘boss’ clown. In certain parts of the show I’ll be walking across the boys’ shoulders, play-slapping them and throwing cream pies at the boys. It is pretty revolutionary for these children to see a girl on-stage – to see a woman travelling with men. I’d like to think that we’re showing the young girls in the camps that women can be on-stage and that a woman can do many things; it’s empowering in a way. They’re so used to seeing UN workers, white people in charge, busy at their jobs, so it’s great for the kids to see white people come into their camps, being fools, falling over and laughing at themselves,” she says.
The group are leaving Ireland this morning and this two week tour will take them to several refugee camps throughout Jordan where they will perform two shows a day and will also provide circus skills workshops to the kids in the camps. Kim and her fellow clowns will keep a blog on the ‘Clowns Without Borders Ireland’ facebook page where they will have daily updates and pictures from their trip.

Laughing in the face of danger