The best and worst of humanity

“You’ve seen the best and worst of humanity, haven’t you?” Such simple yet true words spoken by a friend’s father on seeing me, freshly home from Bangladesh. It captures the essence of Clowns Without Borders work, which takes us into crisis zones, but also into the resilient hearts and spirits of the communities there where we experience some of life’s greatest paradoxes.

Working in conflict zones, like Myanmar, we get to see what some humans do to other humans out of fear and ignorance.  We see disconnection, delusion and hypocrisy. We see how humans strip other humans of their basic human rights, like freedom and identity. Where, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, there is no future without forgiveness. But working in refugee camps, like those in Bangladesh, we also see human kindness. We see what humans do for other humans, out of love and compassionate service. We see communities brought together, working as one, and people coming from all over to provide emotional, physical and mental relief. We see how meaningful that is for a community like the Rohingya who have felt so unseen and forgotten by the world, but are now receiving the urgent attention they need. On a larger scale, this duality reminds me of the Cherokee story about the great battle of the two wolves that live inside of us; the wolf of fear, anger, greed and the wolf of love, joy, hope. When the young boy asks the elder which one will win, he says, ‘The one you feed”. Our work, like the many other NGOs working in these areas, is to witness both wolves but to feed the second one.

Another paradox, which Khalil Gibran expresses so beautifully, is that, “the deeper the sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain”. It is a deeply humbling experience to witness the shining eyes and laughter of a community in crisis. And the smallest things create the greatest joys. Like bubbles and kites, which lift the eyes and the spirits too. Like the bubble that gets away and floats higher and higher. Everyone is watching it, breathing together, with a mind free of thoughts and sorrows. Everyone is on the same team wishing for it to float just a little bit longer, a little bit higher. And then the inevitable moment when it pops. A collective outbreath and then back to earth, back to reality. But something about that small moment of dreaming and hoping together, lingers on. It is a big small moment.

We look for the small and make it big. We look for the smallest children, the ones being pushed to the side, unseen. We see them, play with them, cherish them, and make them the heroes. We celebrate the big small successes, like the moment a young Rohingya girl volunteered to be in the show instead of only boys or the moment the community decided the adolescent girls could attend the show too. I couldn't do this work if I didn't believe in the power of the small and the power of a moment. Like the power of someone who sees you in your most vulnerable and still loves you. Someone who sees you as a survivor, not a victim. Someone who sees your beauty and strength despite your circumstances. There’s something about these moments that reach deep inside and enable you to access resources you didn't know you had left. Like a smile or a laugh. It can be some of the biggest small moments of your life. It can be pure medicine.

Despite the duality and paradoxes of the situations we enter into, the place where the clowns and the community meet is like Rumi’s field, ‘out beyond ideas of right doing and wrongdoing’. In that field, ‘when the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about’. Only the sound of laughter can be heard… 

/Annabel Morgan

Våldet i Syrien eskalerar i takt med att omvärldens intresse svalnar

Att arbeta på Clowner utan Gränser innebär att hoppet alltid finns nära. Det är som ingjutet i märgen på alla oss som finns i organisationen. Men ibland får sig hoppet en törn. Som när en inser att efter sju år av våld och död finns ännu inget slut på konflikterna i Syrien. Snarare tvärt om. På en presskonferens i Beirut för ett par dagar sedan sa en FN-representant att situationen är värre än någonsin och samtidigt rapporterar Ekot om att våldet i Syrien ökar. Den senaste veckan har varit den blodigaste någonsin på flera år.

Om jag inte aktivt letade efter den här informationen skulle jag inte märka av vad som händer i mitt dagliga liv. Det är inte vad människor pratar om på bussen. Det är inte vad våra politiker prioriterar att lösa. Det är inte vad våra medier väljer att sätta på löpen. Våldet i Syrien eskalerar i takt med att omvärldens intresse svalnar.

I samband med att vårt nya projekt Cirkus för hopp och styrka, där vi ska arbeta med asylsökande, snart startar i Sverige går jag igenom statistik från Migrationsverket. 2015 inkom 162 877 ansökningar om asyl. 2017, två år senare, 25 666 stycken. Stående för sig själva skulle siffrorna kunna beskriva en värld som blivit fredligare, en verklighet där människor inte längre tvingas på flykt undan krig och konflikter. Men vi lever inte i en sådan värld, den verkligheten finns inte. Under första veckan i februari tvingades istället tiotusentals nya människor att fly från sina hem i Syrien. Nya provisoriska tältläger byggs dagligen upp. Nöden är stor. Kanske till och med större än någonsin.

Samtidigt som vi gläds åt Kallas vinst i OS är det viktigt att vi inte glömmer det. Att vi inte låter låga siffror av asylansökningar och lugna tågstationer vagga oss in i en falsk tro om att allt har blivit bättre, att människor inte längre är i lika desperat behov av vår hjälp. För faktum är att läget i Sverige idag inte är en spegling av hur resten av världen ser ut. Bara för att vi stängt dörren om oss, och inte längre kan se nöden, betyder inte att den inte finns. Det är dags att vi tar vårt ansvar som medmänniskor igen. Att vi visar att det enorma engagemang som privatpersoner, ideella organisationer och Sverige visade 2015 fortfarande finns.

Ni kan räkna med Clowner utan Gränser i det arbetet. Vi har och kommer aldrig sluta arbeta för en fredlig värld. En värld där alla människor känner sig trygga, hoppfulla och får sina mänskliga rättigheter tillgodosedda.

/Karin Lekberg, styrelseordförande Clowner utan Gränser

"The kids have never seen anything like this before"

Driving into the world’s most rapidly growing refugee camp, we pass a massive, old tree on the precipice of a hill. Ensnarled in its branches are twenty kites.  Below the tree, there are more flying—ragged shreds of plastic held fast by wooden sticks and string—free and reckless in the wind. Below them, children laugh. This is a camp estimated to hold almost 800,000 refugees who have fled Myanmar.

The road forks and we are behind a lorry holding a large emergency water bladder.  If you’ve never seen a water bladder before, it is quite impressive.  Holding thousands of gallons of water, this plastic vessel looks like the floor of a bounce house.  Water bladders are common here outside of the Médecins Sans Frontèires and Red Cross hospitals. They supply drinking water for entire communities. This one on the back of the truck was alive. With each turn, it’s entire being undulated as the waves of fresh water within it ricocheted against each other to the incessant pommeling of the rugged road. When the lorry stopped for traffic the bladder would calm down, but it never stopped moving. Its most subtle waves were like breath, a giant puppet alive and unpredictable.

When you are with clowns, you see things differently.

The bladder made us laugh as we followed it at snail’s pace deep into a “host community” called Burmapara. Host communities’ welcome refugees. They give them a place to build a tent for shelter; they provide markets in which refugees can shop; they bring in food and water to their foreign guests. These host communities are completely impoverished.  Still, they share what they have. They even give away their land, their productive rice fields, so that new arrivals can build a home.

The van stops when there is no more road. Out climb the clowns.

I was neither a clown today, nor had I been one when I arrived in Bangladesh three weeks prior. And though I’ve worked in similar settings with the group Clowns Without Borders, I had come this time to work with a medical non-profit called MedGlobal. Nearby, we ran a small primary care clinic. We had seen traumatic injuries, sepsis, respiratory illness, malnourished children and countless other afflictions.  There, too, we heard stories of violations against women and children by the Burmese army that made us shudder.  We treated patients with profound psychological distress from what had been done to them and from what they had seen, trauma that they will carry for the rest of their lives. Children burned, mass rape, family members gunned down next to siblings who tried escape Myanmar. This has been happening daily, since August 2017.

Out of the clinic and now with the clowns, I saw something completely different. These were the same kids and community we treated in our clinic, but the narrative here was bereft of suffering.

The walk from the vans to the show is muddy and full of puddles. Along the route we pass hundreds of tents, signs for other NGO's and children. The kids glom onto the four clowns in the front of the line, Mamba, Banana, Bim Bam and Annity. Children slip in the mud alongside the clowns, no punishment for falling here, just play. We come upon a clearing where there are open fields with goats and terraced land too rough for rice. A bamboo fence demarcates a large patch of dirt and four bamboo-walled school rooms. Everything in camp is bamboo and tarpaulin. Impermanent. The Bangladeshi government prevents the construction of any permanence. This is the Child Friendly Space where the clowns will perform. Already, hundreds of people await with anticipation.

Mamba distracts a group of children in a game of call and response. He says a word and makes a ridiculous gesture; every child’s eye is on him. The rest of the team sets up their show in a corner of the yard. Within minutes, 750 people are here. The shortest children sit in the front of the audience. Old men and women line the back-holding umbrellas to block the noon sun.

Then the clowns disappear behind a red velvet curtain and the show begins. The children sit quietly in the dirt. Bim Bam pops his head out to the right of the curtain. Annabel appears in the middle. They both look puzzled and then they disappear again. The audience chatters, but no one laughs. Children look around at each other and then jump with surprise when Mamba enters. The clowns are here! The kids have never seen anything like this before.

A man in the back of the crowd who stands next to me, says Mashallah. There is a smile on his worn face. The clowns start a choreographed slapstick routine in which they each try to show off what they want to be when they grow up, a cleaner, a doctor, a ninja and a tomtom driver. Laughter erupts.

For an hour, the clowns create an imaginative journey that invites the audience to participate in magic, a violin concert, a tom-tom ride, acrobatics and dance. The children laugh at the clowns’ foibles and celebrate with their victories. The show ends when Mamba brings two young boys on stage and teaches them a gumboot dance from Swaziland. The children pick up on the moves immediately as the trio of dancers bring delight. The rest of the clowns join in with dance and then they collectively bow, signaling the end of the show. It is then that the most spectacular failure occurs—they cannot end the show. The children refuse to let the clowns leave the stage.

The kids clap and they cheer, but they stay in place, seated, ready for more. So the clowns do what is at the root of all clown performances: They improvise. More songs, more dances.  Annity walks out into the crowd and blows bubbles from a small plastic cup. Many children reach up to pop the exquisite pockets of soap and air. On stage, the other clowns bring out a bucket full of bubble soap and some pole-like contraption with a rope tied to it. Banana lays the rope in the bucket, then raises her arms. She releases a giant orb into the air. All eyes, then all arms move up towards this bubble. Bubbles, like kites lift the eyes and elevate the soul.

Behind the stage there is a black kite, high in the air. It has flown for most of the show. The show is over now, this time for real. Children leave with a bounce in their step that betrays the truth that they’ve lost mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. Their joy belies the absolute depravation they have faced for most of their lives.

/Tim Cunningham