(Written by Marion Duggan)
Writing about my experience in Greece is not an easy one. I wonder how I can keep you engaged, how I can share with you all what I saw in a way that means you too will keep on sharing – because that is something we can all do to help, we can remember and we can talk about it.
Our mission was to share laughter and joy with children who have lost everything to crisis, and for eight days that’s exactly what we did. However, as I look through the photos to remind myself of our Greek tour, I look at the children’s faces and already their names are beginning to slip from my memory. I don’t want these children to become a statistic written on a page. I’ve looked into their eyes and shared their joy, heartbreak, and fear. If we make our decisions based on human experience, then things can change. Distancing ourselves from the stories because they are too painful is a disservice to the children.
Clowns Without Borders UK (CWB UK) sent four clowns and a photographer to refugee camps in northern Greece to perform and lead workshops. In total, through our performances, workshops, and playful interactions, we reached over 3800 children, creating vital moments of emotional release from the pressing challenges of daily life.
We partnered with Save the Children, which allowed us access to military camps and insider knowledge of where our work would be best placed. In Greece, there are two types of camps: the organised military camps, and the unofficial camps like in Idomeni or the Ekko gas station. Ekko is a functioning petrol station with 2000 refugees living in the carpark and forecourt, an absurd sight that wouldn’t look out of place in an Ionesco play.
On our second day in Greece, we went to Diavata, a military camp with well-ordered UNHCR tents in rows, showers, and toilets. Before we arrive, we are warned by the Hellenic Red Cross that earlier that day a fire had burnt down ten tents. We watched as people picked through the burnt rubble, looking for any remaining belongings. The tension and emotion in the camp was palpable and it was difficult to know if we should perform but a conversation from the night before, with Sotiris from the Red Cross, comes to my mind: ‘When I see something collapse, I need to restore it. One way to do that is with laughter”. As the Red Cross took to work finding new bedding for the families that had lost their homes, we took to work performing for the children.
Idomeni and the other unofficial camps are much more adhoc, chaotic and open. People have set up stalls selling water, cigarettes and falafel. We performed in the Idomeni Cultural Centre, a grand name for what is a tent built from pallets, with a raised area outside so that it can be used all year round. There is netting overhead to shade the children and a white plastic fence around the outside to create a focused space.
The children had heard that clowns were coming and were so excited to see us. Our show was light and playful, we entered the stage and the audience clapped so we bowed, and they kept clapping so we kept bowing. There was more and more laughter and the show that followed was magic.
After our performance, we made a train and turned the audience into a huge circle. We led games and songs, which were cut short by a thunderstorm. The children dispersed and the team took cover in one of the tents. Rain lashed down, the lightning flared overhead, thunder crashed around us, and I was taken back to my days as a child; I remembered my fear of thunderstorms and the vulnerability of the situation hit me. Our tent sprung a leak, how many other tents were leaking? How many other children were scared of the thunder? When the storm passed, the camp had turned into a mud bath and all I could think was: people are living in trench like conditions, what must it be like in the winter?
Walking around Idomeni I saw posters telling parents to write their mobile phone number on their child’s arm and others warned about children being stolen. Save the Children told us that in times of crisis children go missing and are sold into slavery or sex work.
As the week went on, I witnessed the chaos of the children’s lives and I saw that our performances and workshops were a safe, ordered space for them. They knew what was expected of them as an audience member and with that came a freedom and a sense of calm and relief. Idomeni Cultural Centre volunteer Mohamed, a 17 year old translator from South Syria, commented: “Children here are living in chaos, the hour they were with you they were calm and transfixed. It was as if they became one.”
On our last day in Greece, we performed in an old train station where people are living on the platform in camping tents. We performed on the disused railway tracks, which lead north to Macedonia and onwards to Germany. Our journey out of the camp took us through the cornfields where the poppies have sprung into bloom, and I thought of the camps in Calais and Dunkirk where lives are also being lived in trench like conditions.
If you want to do something or help in some way, I urge you to share this story, keep it going, and keep the children from becoming faceless, nameless statistics. We are also sending more clowns to Greece and are fundraising for three more tours this year. Please help us reach our goal of £12,000 by donating here to make this possible.
This tour was made possible with the support of Clowns Without Borders Sweden and other donors, such as Magenta.
(Photos by Sarah Hickson)