Clowning about gives people a chance to forget their difficulties for a few minutes; an opportunity to be distracted and creative
"Music!" Moises Queralt shouts, strutting around in front of the assembled crowd playing the world’s smallest harmonica. "No music!" his friend, Carlos Esposito, wearing purple velvet trousers and a rainbow-coloured cap, shrieks, grabbing the 2cm long harmonica off of him, startling some of the children sitting watching them.
Moises, in white and black eye makeup and a red nose, lifts his t-shirt over the back of his head, "Music!" he shouts slapping his hands against his belly to the sound of a beat. "No Music!" Carlos commands for the last time. Moises sneaks around behind Carlos, knocks his cap off, raises his hands, and brings them down on Carlos’s bald head, which he beats like a bongo drum: "Music!" he shouts as the crowd breaks into applause.
Anna magically pulls a punch of flowers out of thin air (MEE/Oscar Webb)
At noon everyday, Moises and Carlos join two other clowns, Elena Xibille and Anna Montserrat, on a patch of empty dirt at the Idomeni refugee camp in Greece. Next to UNHCR tents they perform acrobatics, juggling, music and magic tricks. They’re from a group called Clowns Without Borders, an international NGO, which performs shows like the one at Idomeni for communities blighted by conflict and deprivation around the world. Since August, they’ve had clowns on Lesvos and in Presevo, Serbia, entertaining refugees.
Since the beginning of October, thousands of children and adults have watched the clowns perform at Idomeni whilst they wait for days, and sometimes weeks, to pass the Greek-Macedonian border.
Recently, with the Balkans blocking people from certain nationalities from crossing their borders, thousands of refugees have been forced to camp out at Idomeni indefinitely. The lighthearted entertainment provided by the clowns is one of the only sources of distraction they have from the perils they have faced, and will continue to face.
As Anna performs a handstand on Carlos’s shoulders, children sit cross-legged on the ground watching in wonder; their parents, who frequently burst into smiles themselves, stand in a semi-circle behind them, almost as enamoured as their children.
"My two daughters watch this show every day, laughing and enjoying it," says Mohammed, an Iranian father standing at the back of the crowd. They’ve come here every day for the last week. There’s very little else to do at Idomeni.
"This show makes them happy," he says, looking his two daughters, seven-year-old Helen and two-year-old Helma, sitting at his feet, before adding conclusively: "But only a little bit happy; we need a better life."
Kids watching the show (MEE/Oscar Webb)
After the show, the children take selfies with the clowns – they want to show off the strange people they’ve met at Idomeni to their relatives and friends elsewhere.
Carlos, the 33-year-old Argentinian strong-man of the troupe, explains his role. "I do special projects like this every year with Clowns Without Borders," he says. "Last year I went to India. I was there twice, and I was in Kosovo and Palestine ... Nablus, Ramallah and Jerusalem."
Carlos works for Clowns Without Borders for about a month out of the year and then for much of the rest of the year he works as an entertainer in Spain "for tourists on the beach and in the street".
"I love my work because it reduces peoples’ worries and their anxieties," Carlos says. He’s been working at Idomeni since the beginning of October and says he can clearly see the impact his work has.
"Watching a clown, people can relax, they can stop the stress. Maybe for an hour, maybe for two hours. For me, this is great," he says. "Even normal people, even rich people, have problems as well and when they see a clown, like me, they start to smile, they start to think in another way, they start to forget their problems."
"Can I? Can I picture?" Anna says, interrupting us, pulling a tiny toy camera out of her bag, which holds the secrets to most of her act. "Email…? Facebook…? Facebook," she says, and walks off to take a selfie with some of the children. Nothing should be taken too seriously here when the clowns are around, she seems to say.
Anna, Carlos, Moises and Elena walk through the camp to their car, and smiles break out on peoples’ faces as they pass. The mere presence of the clowns seems to cut through the despair and tension. Children run up to them showing them their toys, knowing that they, as clowns, will appreciate how much fun they are. Almost every adult we walk past says hello. Many say "thank you" – everyone in the camp knows who they are.
The clowns, Moises says, are here as much for the adults as for the children.
"They really need it. They arrive tired, sad and thrown into this very stressful situation. We come here for the children but the adults really need it just as much," he says.
"The point is that it’s not just for an hour that the refugees get distracted," Moises says, "It’s good for their mind to be wowed for a short period and it means they’ll feel better for the rest of the day; they won’t be so depressed."
Children jostle to have their photos taken with Anna after the show (MEE/Oscar Webb)
Whilst talking by their car, adults come up to the clowns to try out magic tricks they’d seen in the show, which they proceed to badly bungle. The clowns put people at ease, allowing them the opportunity to express things, to try things out, to be distracted: things that just aren’t possible in the camp otherwise. The clowns give people an outlet for music, laughter and creativity, things not common in refugee camps.
"When I speak with the refugees, hear their stories and their histories, it’s very hard," says Elena, a thirty-three-year-old from Mallorca, Spain, who just half an hour previously was hoisted up on Carlos’s shoulders.
"When I do the show, I see them become very happy. While the show is taking place, they have fun and I have fun. They forget their life’s drama for a few moments and relax."
Down the railway tracks about one kilometre from the camp there are two small cafes. Refugees walk here every day to get coffee and chat. This the furthest from the camp many have been for several weeks and it’s one of the only daily activities available. Even here there’s still no break from the relentlessness of the situation. The topics of conversation are the same as in the camp: "When will the border open?"; "How long will they keep us here?"; "Why are we being treated this way?"
Apart from a tent with toys for the children, which pops up once a week, the clowns are the only real distraction at Idomeni. Their show gives people a space to forget the circumstances they live in, an opportunity to be distracted and to be creative. A human need – and something that, many argue, should be more widely and more officially acknowledged as a basic humanitarian need.
Moisès, Elena, Carlos and Anna (MEE/Oscar Webb)
As the clowns are about to leave for the day, an elderly Iranian-Kurdish man, Salman, stops next to us and starts singing a folk song. His son is embarrassed, his eyes throwing concerned looks that signal he should stop, but his father continues singing regardless, waveringly but persistent, as if he is finally releasing a confession of a long-held secret.
He knows this is the place for singing, the only place in the whole camp perhaps for singing. These are entertainers: they understand – so he must use this opportunity to sing.
The clowns join in, clapping. Moises, the musician of the troupe, plays out a quick beat on his drum. A crowd quickly forms, smiling inquisitively; some, who know the song, join in. And then the man concludes the song in a final verse.
"Thank you." Salman says, and continues on his way.