Clowns Without Borders

What We Don’t Take Pictures Of

By Naomi Shafer

Clowns Without Borders Funds Development Officer


On August 28th, 2011, Hurricane Irene hit my hometown. The photographers arrived before the National Guard. As we walked with our neighbors to explore the damage – houses, roads, orchards disappeared by the river – strangers made the town a tourist destination. As we collected scattered belongings and organized shelter, social media gaped at the unlikeliness of a Hurricane in Vermont.  

Vermont’s improbable circumstances made us a news coverage novelty. A terrible situation was made worse by the media’s snide comments and insensitivities. People in cities that were spared by Hurricane Irene joked, “what hurricane?” while we waited for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At best, we received pity. Five years later, the confusion of being portrayed as a joke and a victim still stings.

Audience of children and adults laughing with the clowns on Lesvos. pictures
Crowd gathers to laugh with the clowns on the Island of Lesvos.

Why am I telling you about this experience? Because now, more than ever, it’s important to take stock of how to talk about and show people in crisis. During every project, Clowns Without Borders could take pictures of tragedy. We could show you hunger, poverty, violence, or sickness. But instead, we show you laughter, community, and resilience. We want our pictures to demonstrate the connection between people, not the difference in our circumstances.

In October of 2015, we had a team on the Greek island of Lesvos when four boats capsized in one night. That evening, the clowns — in their plain clothes — went to the northern harbor of Molyvos to help. Every survivor had lost someone that night. Sabine spent her night in the church-turned-emergency room, translating for the patients and doctors who were having the most difficult time communicating. Luz and Molly distributed dry clothes to the survivors. Clay stayed with two girls who couldn’t find their parents. We helped in the best way we could, and at 12:45 AM, the team left to get some sleep before their morning performance.

We didn’t share pictures of that night, in fact, we didn’t take pictures that night. We did take pictures at our shows the next day.

Young girl bounces with clowns on large life raft on rocky beach of Lesvos island. pictures.
Life raft transformed into a trampoline, Lesvos.

Our images from the morning after the wreck include a little boy, damp from the ocean, but laughing, as Clay Mazing twirls a lasso around him. Also, a young girl, who helped the clowns transform a life raft into a trampoline.

Each of these individuals has a harrowing story. Each has a hardship that lies ahead. However, the experiences we offer to you are the shared moments of hopefulness. We want to share moments of laughter and joy, so that instead of feeling pity, you can feel a connection.

We hope these pictures help you connect with our audiences, not through pity, but through solidarity.

Too often, we are only shown the destruction, and never shown the process of healing. Too often, we see the differences between people, instead of the delights we can share together. Too often, we assume that the subjects of our photos will never view them.

Choose to share the stories and struggles of others with the dignity that you would hope for, should you find yourself in a similar position. Just as I never expected to see the National Guard arrive in Williamsville, Vermont, many of our audience members never dreamed that they would be the ones on the news as survivors.


Theatre of the Heart

When you love something, anything; people sense it. Love takes many forms. Rudi Galindo, clown, professional performer, and a Clowns Without Borders (CWB) volunteer since day one, is so full of love that it exudes from his wide, bright smile and fills the room. He found his passion long ago and it’s been filling him with love ever since. It is his devotion to theatre and the enduring connections he creates with audiences.

Rudi has always had an ability to impact the audience. During performances, he aims for the audience’s hearts, then their ‘funny bones,’ and then their intellects. He is interested in exciting people by evoking emotions that sometimes lay latent. He calls it, “Theatre of the Heart.” Theatre of the Heart turns the traditional concept of performance on its head. To be theatrical is to put on a show, sometimes a fiction. But Rudi’s style of creativity invites the audience to be anything but fake. Whether the show makes you laugh, cry, or feel tenderness, the idea is to draw out the true senses of the heart and allow for a protective space to let those emotions be expressed without repercussion. When the community around you is experiencing and expressing at the same time, well, these moments become meaningful and striking.

Rudi’s style of creative theatre has traveled with him as he has performed all over the United States, Europe, and Central America. His love for theatre and honest kinship with viewers endears him to the audiences of Clowns Without Borders projects. Rudi has communed in laughter with many, many people served by Clowns Without Borders. He has been volunteering since the mid-1990’s, working with Moshe Cohen in the initial days of CWB USA’s founding.Rudi and young boy look at the red nose in Rudi's hand. theatre of the heart


In fact, Rudi is the owner of the ‘paper bag trick,’ a sleight of hand gag now used by all Clowns Without Borders chapters. During this trick, a volunteer audience member joins the clown on stage. The clown leads the volunteer through a fun, light-hearted improvisation session with a paper bag that is empty. But at the end of the gag, when the volunteer finally gets the bag, she finds there is a red nose inside and she has magically made it appear. She gets to keep the nose, but more importantly, she gets to keep the metaphor: Something that was imagined is now concrete.

Rudi Galindo has a special place in the historical records of CWB USA. He is a volunteer, board member, professional performer, educator, trainer of new CWB USA volunteers, trick-creator, and humanitarian. There is one location that will certainly stay anchored to Rudi’s heart forever – Turkey.

It was 2015, just after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Rudi was headed to Turkey for a Clowns Without Borders project to bring joy to refugee camps. Violent uprisings across Turkey had made many places unsafe for the clowns. Everything was eerie and unsettled.

Undaunted, Rudi and the team made their way through Turkey towards the Syrian border, visiting as many places as possible. They stopped in Suruc, at the Amara Culture Center where a suicide bomber had recently unleashed terror at the local community center, killing 32 and injuring dozens of people. On July 20, 2015, an organized group of young people went to Suruç to deliver toys for kids at the nearby refugee camp. On that day, they were planning to make a statement to the press and hand in the toys to the kids via representatives. But, during the statement to the press at the garden of Amara Culture Center, the bombing took place.

Many friends of the Turkish artists were slain by the bomber; murdered for helping others.

A stage is nearby. The stage is riddled with jagged shrapnel holes and splintered wood. It was here that Rudi said the team would perform, because, as he put it, “We are going to make this stage a place where joy, laughter, and art belong again.” Everyone was impassioned, and the whole performance was an emotional adventure. It brought forth a cathartic combination of tears, laughter, and an understanding that the locals were taking back ownership and control of their community.

At the end of the show, Rudi gave the audience a message with tears in his eyes. His words embody the motivation behind the work of Clowns Without Borders. “The reason we are here is because we care about you. We play because we want you to feel better. You are not forgotten, you are in our hearts.”

Learn more about Rudi’s many projects and Clowns Without Borders by visiting Please make a gift and help support the sharing of #ResilienceInLaughter at

South Sudan 2014

Laughter Transforms Discrimination

By Nadiya Atkinson

Clowns Without Borders USA Guest Blogger


Language surrounds us. Contemporary rhetoric is constantly utilized, from conversations to the media, to debates, to institutions, to water-cooler chats, to political discourse, and to novels. It is a necessary part of our society, as society progresses through the diversity of opinions on topics. It allows individuals to hear multiple sides to one issue and change public opinion on others. However, recent studies, (, have portrayed rising polarization in political rhetoric in the past few decades. Some persuasive rhetoric often champions social divisions or violence against certain minorities and populations. Such language affects not only adults, but children as well, who hear the opinions of their parents, teachers, classmates, media, etc., and base their actions off of what they hear.

An infamous experiment was made in 1968 by Jane Elliot, a third-grade school teacher in Riceville, Iowa, in which she separated the class based on eye color – blue or brown – and proceeded to tell the students that one eye color was better, and demeaned those who had the alternate eye color. The students quickly caught on and began to discriminate against the students who didn’t have their eye color, regardless if they had previously been friends. Learning materials and more about the experiments are located at

Children are extremely sensitive and open, as they learn by examples given to them by adults. If social behavior promotes the inferiority of some individuals, kids will learn that those people are inferior, regardless of whether it is true or not. If society portrays minority groups as inhuman and violent, kids will learn that these groups are dangerous and less-than.

Every single person is racist. Every person is biased. These are not placements of blame, or guilt, but simply the consequence of living as humans in our society. It is a natural instinct to make preconceived opinions on outward appearance and differences because survival is based on making split-second decisions on whether something is safe or not. As much as I would like to believe that I am not, I too am racist. I, like everyone else immediately conclude a person’s trustworthiness the moment I see her, without allowing her to pronounce a word.

However, our humanity comes from the ability to assess and change those split-second formulations of an entire person’s identity solely based on their appearance and cultural background. And language, the words we write, say, or hear, is easy enough to change merely by processing it before speaking it. We can encourage this awareness in young people. The rhetoric of hate, fear, and lack of understanding can and must be changed to one of compassion, love, and respect. It is vital that kids do not learn the prejudices of the previous generations.

What is the best way to dispel false notions of people and allow for a more open, interconnected society? Laughter. Clowns Without Borders is always utilizing laughter to create more interconnected, healthy, and positive experiences for groups in underprivileged parts of the world. If we play together, we can do many things together. If you need a bit scientific evidence for the multitude of benefits that laughter gives, I recommend starting here: stands proudly on red-nosed clown shoulders. laughter transforms discrimination

Even as Clowns Without Borders offers programs far away from home, we see that the United States is undergoing significant tension and unrest itself. It is for this reason that we have created ‘Take Laughter With You’ a cross-cultural teaching resource, and made easier with play. Click here to learn more.

Children need to have the opportunity to inherit respect and understanding for other cultures, as well as the ability to understand that despite social constructs, little separates us as individuals. The most human way for kids to accept this is what kids do the best: Play and laugh.

Laughter has a language. It is a vocabulary of compassion, humor, and joy, and is understood and shared by every single individual across the world. It does not discriminate between color, culture, political parties, or social standing. It is universal.


Photo credit: Lindsey Cooper

Illustration of clown on unicycle

Look Away From Fear and Towards Education

By Molly Rose Levine


As someone with friends and colleagues scattered around the world, the fallout of violence and disruption hits close to home, no matter where that happens to be: Juba; Beirut; Nice; Baghdad; Athens; Aleppo; Paris. After the attack on the Istanbul airport last month, my heart clenched in my throat as I waited to hear if any community member had been traveling through the airport. I breathed a sigh of relief: another tragedy dodged. Little did I know that a few weeks later we would still be changing plans to accommodate violence in the region.

South Sudan had been experiencing a period of peace since a treaty signed in August 2015, but unfortunately experienced violent clashes at the beginning of July. Together with our partners at INTERSOS and Save the Children Juba, we made the call to postpone our project. Without a safety/evacuation plan from our partners and support from the Consulate, we will not send our artists into active conflict areas. In the end, we could not assure the safety of our team in the event of increasing clashes. This decision was difficult after so much time and energy was put into the project. I wrote a blog which explains more about the situation in South Sudan. Read it here.

Three days before our artistic team planned to travel to Turkey; the failed military coup happened. We waited for the aftermath, hoping against hope that in three days the situation would be stable. By the time we needed to make the call, we did not have enough information to move forward, and so we grounded the US artists. Our artists understood and were grateful for our thought and consideration – they felt we were making the right call.

The silver lining? Our Turkish counterparts continued with the program! Professional clowns artists in Turkey performed for 5,000 children in 19 shows, across ten cities and refugee camps. Even in the midst of turmoil, they still made an impact and shared laughter with the communities who need it more than ever. The program continuing with our Turkish counterparts was the ray of sunlight in the dark cloud of disappointment.

Like our colleagues in Turkey, we know that there are people in crisis right here in our country. Since 1975, Americans have welcomed over 3 million refugees from all over the world. Refugees have built new lives, homes, and communities in towns and cities in all 50 states.  And yet, we are now finding ourselves in a climate of extreme fear and xenophobia, despite 30 years of welcoming refugees. As violent disruption continues to increase steadily around the world, we feel called to do more here at home. We want to have more impact by sharing the twenty years of organizational knowledge about listening; empathizing; communicating cross-culturally; and processing trauma with laughter and play.

The world is changing. In a world where violence, conflict, and disruption seem to be all around us, what can we do? How can we be agile? How can we do our beneficial work where it helps the most?

This fall Clowns Without Borders USA is launching an Education Program called, Take Laughter With You. This program will be age appropriate learning on topics including human displacement, cross-cultural understanding, listening and empathy building – all wrapped up in a healthy dose of PLAY. We are growing this program from the roots of a similar and successful initiative created by Clowns Without Borders Sweden. We feel a sense of urgency to bring this program to fruition, so we’re excited to be prototyping in real time, learning as we go, and actively reacting to feedback from communities we work with – just like we do in all of our programs.  

If you’re interested, you can help in this first phase by filling out this quick survey!

We are so excited to see how we can grow and learn together! Will you join us?

Take Laughter With You

New Education Program: Take Laughter With You

By Naomi Shafer


What do Albany, NY, Dallas, TX, Burlington, VT, and Boise, ID all have in common? Craft Beer? Bears? Nope (well, maybe): Each is a designated Refugee Resettlement City.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is a result of The Refugee Act of 1980, a piece of legislation that sought to standardize resettlement programs for all refugees admitted to the United States. Though certain states have specialized services for refugees, in each county, and possibly each classroom in the United States, there are refugees, children of refugees, grandchildren of refugees, and great-grandchildren of refugees.

This past year, “refugee resettlement” has become an explosive topic, too often one colored by xenophobia and fear. While many Americans trace their lineage back to their ancestors’ home countries – countries frequently fled due to famine and violence – Nationalism seems to trump empathy in the current discussion of refugees. The United States is traditionally thought of as a melting pot, a country for the homeless, but our borders are tightening. Those borders are not only at Customs control but also in our minds.

Clowns Without Borders is launching a domestic education program, called “Take Laughter With You.” The message is simple: Wherever you go, Take Laughter With You. We cannot fly to Turkey or South Sudan. We lack the security clearance to return to the Moria camp in Lesvos. We can make a change at home. We can work with children in the United States, just like we work with children in refugee camps, to build community and start cross-cultural conversations.

We see young people as powerful change agents. On our international projects, it is often children who approach artists first. It is the children who initiate play and transform the refugee camps, replacing isolation with collaboration. We believe the same can be true in the United States.Clown with checkered pants play in school court yard w children. Education.

We do not need airplane tickets to inspire resilience in laughter. We only need schools, youth groups, and communities to invite us in. We are prototyping this project in real time, refining as we go. We are already building relationships with educators and community leaders. We want our program to be agile, relevant, and immediate. That means, when you invite us, we will come!

  • Are you an educator or a parent who wants to be involved as a consultant?
  • Are you an educator or a parent who wants to invite us to your school or club?
  • Do you have ideas about how to teach children empathy for refugees?

If you answered yes to any of these questions – fill out this survey:


Now is the time for positive change. Now is the time to protect all children’s futures. Will you join us?

Visit our Resources page to get a glimpse of the “Take Laughter With You” prototype.

Learn more about the Office of Refugee Resettlement:




Burma 2009 dave's feet

A Case for Clowns: Ebola

A Case for the Clowns: Ebola

Why Clowns Without Borders Works


By Tim Cunningham


Tortell pirouettes quickly and the microphone swings around behind him; it has a life of its own. The centrifugal force of the windscreen pulls the instrument around his arms and legs, making his clown blazer flop poetic in the wind. The crowd’s eyes are wide with surprise when he catches the mic just before it hits him in the face—Tortell’s eyes matching the eyes of the 100 children and families in the audience. His relief, their laughter.

He has just spent the first 10 minutes of the show warming up the audience, a master street artist who draws the crowd in as he sets the stage. It is more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, pushing 105 even. The audience and clowns from Spain stand in the shadow of a two-story colonial building with stone archways and wooden doors. Its tile portico is cool to the bare feet of some of the audience, the West African designs deflect the heat of the pounding sun. It is about three in the afternoon, Tortell and his clowns have already performed two shows in Freetown and now they are presenting their final show of the day before heading further east.

This is the first day of Clowns Without Borders shows in Sierra Leone since the Ebola epidemic began in late 2013. It is now early 2015, February. This is also the first Clowns Without Borders show that I have ever seen as an audience member. This is the first time I’ve seen healthy children and families play, dance and be together since I had arrived in Sierra Leone eight weeks prior.

Once Tortell regained control of his rogue microphone he announced the opening of the show—acrobats and movement artists entreated the audience to a spectacle that consisted of partner juggling while standing on the ground and on shoulders. The performers danced with fantastic and impossible objects—a giant fabric butterfly and streamers. All the while Tortell interjected the finessed scenes with mischievous intrigue, he tried (and always failed) to recreate what the movement artists had just performed, he filled the space with magic tricks winning over the audience with his glorious, comedic bungles.

I stuck out as an audience member, the only white person in the crowd. And though I tried to stand back from the front row, away from children and among the adults, parents turned to me and asked me when I would go and join the clowns.

“I’m not in the show.”

“Yes, but you must be.” An audience member grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the stage.

I froze, not playfully, but with a sense of deep, reactionary discomfort.

“No no, I am not in the show. They are my friends there, I know them, but I am not in the show.”

I had not been touched for almost nine weeks, by a stranger, that is. We were not supposed to.

The government of Sierra Leone had set a national edict—ABC: Avoid Body Contact. When the woman from the audience touched my arm and I felt a surge of adrenaline, then fear. It was fight or flight. I was breaking the rules; they had been broken on me. I felt like, for a fleeting moment, a victim. Had I been contaminated?

The woman then laughed out loud, seeing my awkward reaction to her touch “OK, but I think you are a clown too! Look at them, they are so amazing!”

Another man near us noticed our commotion and he then held my hand as he explained to me why Tortell’s magic plastic bag bit was so funny. He described in detail how he thought the magic trick was happening, and having done the gag before myself, I can say that he was mostly correct.

“But look at the children!  Look at them! They love this so much!” Another man chimed in.

Clown balances on a standing suitcase before a large crowd of children. A case for clowns, ebola.

Around us, scrambling to the top of adults’ shoulders were kids who clambered to get closer to the clowns. Their laughter was silenced to a vibrant, low chatter only when the clowns presented movement pieces of silks flying through the air and then thunder released again when Tortell entered and tripped over a brick on the rough strewn road. Like waves of the ocean, their laughter came and went. Laughter like this, according to the host who welcomed the clowns from a small German NGO, had not been heard for some time.

I came to Sierra Leone, like hundreds of others, to work as a nurse. From 2013-2016 the Ebola epidemic, first in Guinea, then Liberia and Sierra Leone took the lives of more than 11,000 people. Children (under the age of five) who were infected had a 20% chance of survival when the disease prevalence was near its peak. As a pediatric nurse, I still find it hard to describe the heartbreak of losing eight out of every ten pediatric patients we treated with Ebola. The rate of survival for older children increased with their age, as did fear; as did depression; and as did withdrawal from play and community.

The unfathomable psychological destruction of the Ebola crisis reared its ugly head every day to those of us who worked in the “hot zone,” constantly desperate for supplies, more human power and for a cure. Children who survived the disease appeared frightened to leave our treatment units and return home—we learned very quickly that community members were often not welcomed home after surviving Ebola because of stigma born of fear and misunderstanding the nature of the contagion. People separated themselves from others, people were afraid to interact like before, people were judged and communities fractured. Children no longer played.

Towards the end of the clown show, one of the acrobats found a red, triangular flag and showed it to the audience, which had doubled in size and by now had formed a complete circle around the artists. The clown waved the flag proudly in the air. Tortell snatched it, then invited an audience member to come to the stage. A grown man stepped forward much to the pleasure of the audience. The clowns made the red flag disappear, then appear again from places like the man’s ear or from inside of his shirt. Then a clown made the cloth disappear and reached into Tortell’s waistband to retrieve it. Instead of the cloth coming forth, a long strip of plastic, red and white caution tape, like that used at the site of a crime scene appeared as the clown ran from Tortell revealing its full length. The tape had red and white vertical stripes—the same tape used throughout Sierra Leone to quarantine homes with people suspected of having Ebola. The clowns ran around the audience member with the tape and they all became entangled in a picturesque finale for that bit. The audience, especially the man they volunteered were beside themselves with laughter. A man near me, who still did not believe that I was not in the show held my arm and leaned against me for a better view. For a moment, we were all limitless in our laughter.

I looked through the audience and for the first time since I had arrived in Sierra Leone, there was not a face that showed fear.  People were not stymied to stand with each other and accompany each other in playfulness. Everyone was together. Everyone looked normal.

War, poverty, and disease trigger the worst of humanity. They create a “new normal” of suffering, stigma, and division. What the clowns did on this excruciatingly hot day was provide a platform whereby normalcy reigned again. The laughter broke the hold of stigma—even if it was just for a moment—and through the ridiculousness of the clowns, people saw each other not through the lens of disease but through that of a common humanity.


Please read Tim’s original blog post here.