Darina Robles demonstrates payasearía como hermosa humanidad

Payasería Como Hermosa Humanidad 

CWB – USA artist and Llaven nü founder Darina Robles shares her experience of hermosa humanidad, clowning for the Rarámuri people in Chihuahua, Mexico. This blog post as-told-to CWB Communications Director Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone and is edited for length and clarity. 

Character Creation

Gratitude is the strongest emotion I feel after the tour. I also feel tired, but happy, and that helps my energy return.

My clown name is Atanasia, which comes from Rarámuri/Ralámuli. One day, I was reading a book about Ralámuli mythology. They say that Onorúame (god) and his brother Atanasio created the world. I think that clowning is similar to creating the world. You create something from nothing. I decided that I want to be Atanasia and make a clown show about the creation of the world. I’ve done this show for 10 years, in many countries. I always dreamed to perform it for the Ralámuli and thank them for helping me create this character.

Returning To Live Performance

It was unbelievable to finally have an audience after COVID-19 isolation. I could see them, and listen to their laughter and reactions. It was so special that my first audience was the Ralámuli. Their community was very strong during the pandemic and they protected themselves from getting sick.

Clowns Without Borders shares laughter and emotional relief, but it was important to me that we also bring a message of thanks and gratitude to Indigenous people. The Ralámuli care for their land, and we need to respect, see, and know about them. They face assassination by mafia and violence perpetrated by business interests that want to extract natural resources.

Instead of learning from them, we discriminate against them. It’s hard to understand. They’re right in the way they live, but they don’t fit into a capitalist society. They don’t think about money, they think about the earth. It’s another logic. The Ralámuli don’t say that they’re suffering from discrimination, though. They talk about the way they live, and about their beliefs. Because they’re strong in their beliefs, they’re able to care for the world.

Making The Show

The Comisión (Comisión Estatal para los Pueblos Indígenas) helped us to make sure that we were not reinforcing any kind of discrimination or making any assumptions about the Ralámuli. I asked the Comisión to come see the show and give us feedback. They told us that the Ralámuli are not always asking god for help; they also help god take care of the world. That inspired some of our clown show.

During one moment, we create the world together. Julie mimes what I’m describing: The mountains, the trees, the rain. Then the kids start to shout out all the animals we should create. We create the Ralámuli people and you can see the kids’ beautiful smiling faces. They know it’s their story. We ask them, “Now, who will take care of the world?” They shout, “Us! Kids!” Yes! Ralámuli. So then, we say, god and Atanasio create the Ralámuli. The other clowns fight over who gets to take care of the world, but we decide that we don’t need to fight about it. We can play, and that’s how we show our care. The audience comes onstage with us at the end. We sing, “By dancing, we take care of the world. By laughing, we take care of us.”

Three Rarámuri women in colorful dresses and headscarves smile at the camera. Two clowns, wearing red noses, make goofy faces.
Photo by Darina Robles. CWB – USA and Big Heart Circus on tour in Noroguchi, Chihuahua, Mexico 2021


The Importance of Laughter

We met a woman named Lolita who told us that laughter is very important to the Ralámuli. She said that sadness is part of life, but it can also make you sick. Happiness can take you out of sickness. The Ralámuli believe that god is part of everything, so when you make someone laugh, you are also making god laugh. It’s important to me that we care for people who care for nature. As clowns, one of the ways we care for people is by sharing laughter with love.

I always want to talk to the audience after a show. You can see their beautiful faces and listen to their laughter during a performance, but afterward is when you really build bridges of communication. When CWB worked with Jesuit Refugee Services in Ecuador, they asked us, “How do we send a message of inclusion?” And then when they saw the clowns, they understood that the clowning is a message of inclusion. It’s a great way to communicate. When you talk with people afterward, you can understand what parts of the show were important to them and also listen to their stories.

We spoke to Esperanza, her children, her cousin, and Esperanza’s 70-year-old mother after a show. They told us that they heard on the radio that a clown show would happen in Norogachi Community, so they walked three hours through the forest to join the show. We also learned that the Ralámuli don’t consider that kind of walk to be a hardship because they like to be in the forest. It was their first time seeing a clown show, and they liked it. For me, it’s not just clowning as performance. This is payasería como hermosa humanidad .

A beach in Puerto Rico, shortly after Category 5 Hurricane Maria made landfall

Climate Emergency and Displacement

What makes something a crisis? Is it the scale? Or the severity? Or maybe it’s the duration? Climate crisis includes all three of these factors: It affects billions of people and every ecosystem on the planet, and a forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report indicates that we’re past the point of recovery. Rising global temperatures—led by the United States and China, in terms of annual carbon dioxide emissions—cause deadly weather events, a public health emergency, and an impending spike in climate, or environmental, migration.

Most importantly, the climate emergency is “without borders.” It will dramatically reshape life on earth, even impacting nations and individuals whose affluence will allow them to escape the deadliest effects.

Current Global Displacement

Global displacement is at record levels. The political and economic crisis in Venezuela is so severe that “Venezuelans displaced abroad” is now its own category describing 3.9 million people. Children disproportionately represent 42% of globally displaced people and only 30% of the world’s population. Nearly half of all 20.7 million refugees are children under the age of 18.

A graph showing the increase in forcibly displaced people over time. It shows that there are now 82 million people forcibly displaced.

It’s clear that forced displacement drastically increased over the past decade, with no signs of slowing down. The climate crisis is also accelerating. Yet, “climate refugees” and “environmental migration” are largely absent from UNHCR’s conceptualization of forced displacement.

Environmental Migration

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), environmental migrants are people forced to move due to sudden or progressive changes to their environment. However, “environmental migrant” and “climate refugee” are conceptual terms. There’s no legal definition or binding agreement to incorporate these migrants into international policy.

Who Counts?

Imagine one farmer forced to leave her country because of worsening drought. Another flees severe flooding. Both are relatively common natural disasters, yet one is prolonged while the other is sudden. Extreme weather events will become more frequent as the climate crisis progresses. Would both people count as environmental migrants? In a future rife with disasters, how will we differentiate what’s “natural” and what’s “extreme”?

Determining the root cause of migration has huge consequences for migrants’ rights and legal protections. War, persecution, or other violence forced many of today’s displaced people to move. Future conflicts over increasingly strained or scarce resources will further blur the distinction between “political” and “climatic.”

NPR reports that the climate crisis is most likely to cause internal displacement, forcing people to relocate within their home countries. If so, the ranks of Internally Displaced People (IDP) could balloon. Alternatively, the same people already experiencing displacement could be forced to move again and again.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) states:

Ninety-five per cent of all conflict displacements in 2020 occurred in countries vulnerable or highly vulnerable to climate change. Disasters due to sudden and slow-onset hazards routinely hit populations already uprooted by conflict, forcing them to flee multiple times, as was the case with IDPs in Yemen, Syria and Somalia and refugees in South Sudan and Bangladesh. –Human Mobility In the Face of Climate Crisis

The Defining Crisis Of Our Time

The UNHCR calls the climate emergency “the defining crisis of our time,” but there are few solutions in sight. In 2018, the UN General Assembly’s Global Compact on Refugees recognized the “reality of increasing displacement in the context of disasters, environmental degradation and climate change” while denying that these drivers are “root causes” of refugee movement. IOM’s Data Migration Portal confirms that it’s challenging to differentiate migration-triggering environmental factors from political, economic, or personal factors, because they’re so closely linked to one another:

For migration due to slow-onset environmental processes, such as drought or sea-level rise, most existing data are qualitative and based on case studies, with few comparative studies. –Data Migration Portal

In other words, it’s hard to come by quantitative data and qualitative data is considered insufficient.

Why We Need Climate Stories

CWB frequently works with communities experiencing climate-related crisis. In The Bahamas, Haitian migrant workers who had just survived Hurricane Dorian were at risk for deportation. Parts of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure remained abandoned or broken a year after Hurricane Maria—a year in which thousands of Puerto Ricans moved to the mainland United States. Indigenous Guaraní people in Brazil routinely defend their land against agribusiness tactics of clear-cutting—a practice that, when combined with rising global temperatures, may contribute to massive fires.

Is CWB – USA here to solve the climate crisis? No, of course not. However, CWB’s restorative-narrative approach recognizes the complexity of agency and self-determination within vulnerable communities. We regularly adjust our programming in response to stories from the field. Qualitative data drives our decision-making. Listening to environmental migrants can be a proactive force to change our collective fate, re-conceptualizing climate action from “aid offered to the powerless” to “action taken by the resilient.”

Little boy holds lots of hats

Human Rights Day 2020

A clown and a little boy touch noses in Cali, ColombiaDecember 10th is Human Rights Day, commemorating the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This landmark United Nations document specifies that all people have the same inalienable rights, regardless of background, origin, or other difference.

This year’s theme, “Recover Better,” acknowledges that COVID-19 has eroded human rights and strained global resources. The United Nations reported that 80 million people are now forcibly displaced, as of December 2020. Overlapping global crises have accelerated displacement and prevented people from safely returning home, while closed borders and migrant detention further expose some of the most vulnerable people to harm.

The United Nations defines COVID-19 recovery and human rights in four terms:

  • Ending the structural discrimination and racism that have encouraged and supported massive inequality
  • Addressing those inequalities through a new social contract
  • Encouraging solidarity among people and participation of the most vulnerable
  • Promoting sustainable development for a future that attempts to mitigate climate change

CWB – USA recognizes that COVID-19 locked some people out while locking others in. Various forms of interpersonal violence have increased during the pandemic, including violence against children. That’s why CWB partnered with Ecuador-based Humor Y Vida and Recreando Lazos Sociales to create short clown videos addressing violence against children. These videos are distributed in Ecuador as PSAs, and are available on our YouTube channel.

Imagine a COVID-19 vaccine, freely available to every person on earth. Yet, there’s no vaccine for structural inequality and discrimination, and no vaccine for climate change. Any COVID-19 recovery must consider the long-term impact of accelerating displacement, looming global famine, and a generation of interrupted education. A human-rights lens helps address the root causes of COVID-19’s catastrophic impact. It can prioritize safety, dignity, and peace for all people.

Follow this link to hear UDHR articles read in your language, and follow this link to read the illustrated version of the UDHR.

Ecuador 2019

First of May Part 3: Josie Mae, Leora Sapon-Shevin, and Eric Rubin

Hear from artists Josie Mae, Leora Sapon-Shevin, and (new board member!) Eric Rubin as they reflect on their First of May experiences—in this case, their first CWB tours! This interview is part of our Clowns In Conversation series, which lives on YouTube. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you first find out about Clowns Without Borders?

Eric: I’ve wanted to work with CWB since I was in embryonic form. I went to Ecuador in December 2019 for my first tour. I was with Josie and a bunch of other amazing clowns. It was everything I could have hoped for, and more. 

Josie: I interned with CWB while I earned my certificate in nonprofit management. That was about five years ago, and I’ve wanted to go on a tour since then. My first tour was, as Eric said, in Ecuador.

Leora: I went to The Bahamas in December 2019 for my first CWB tour. I’ve wanted to be a clown since I saw a CWB video of a tour in Greece, performing for Syrian refugees. That was the spark and this trip was a real dream come true. 

Can you share a golden moment from the tour?

E: Our last show was, by far, my best moment. Were touring in Ecuador and our final show was at a small home for Venezuelan refugee families. It was a beautiful little room with audience lining the walls. We had artistically melded by that point in the tour, and the audience was so alive and full of joy. We were still improvising and improving during this final show—creating new parts to see how they developed—and the audience had an incredible reaction. They couldn’t believe what we created in such a short amount of time.

J: My golden moment from the tour had to do with the creation process. We showed up in Quito and started throwing around all our skills, talents, and ideas. We created a show about migration, human rights, and dreams, and that was really relevant for our audience. It felt good to come together as a team of American and Mexican clowns and present something about community.

L: I toured to The Bahamas on a hurricane relief tour. Our first performance was at a shelter full of evacuees from islands that were destroyed by Hurricane Dorian. The shelter was in a huge gymnasium and we walked through rows of beds, handing out flyers and trying to get people excited about the show. People were a little hesitant, a little quiet, probably because we were basically walking through their living room. We went outside to the car and put on our costumes, and started singing and clapping as we wound our way toward the gym entrance. People started cracking smiles. Two men opened the doors for us and we were hit by this huge wave of cheering and applause as we walked inside. It was overwhelming joy, and it was in such sharp contrast to the reactions we experienced from the same people moments before. It made me think, “This is real!” The wave of receptive, rolling joy isn’t just in the CWB promotional videos. It was amazing to experience that switch and change.

What did you do to prepare for the tour?

E: You want to bring your best game. I was kind of the music guy, but Lars [Uribe, another clown on tour] also played music. Pretty much everyone could. That’s the thing, you think of yourself as “the music guy” but all the other clowns can play music and they can also juggle. It’s intimidating to be with such wonderful talent. I wanted to learn every children’s song in Latin America and wanted to get my guitar chops as tight as possible. I rigged up a speaker so I could carry it around with me and do some live looping and interviews with a microphone. You end up throwing out half of what you prepare and you figure things out in ensemble. You have to come with an open mind and be ready to collaborate. 

J: I did a lot of research on the region and our partner organization, and tried to understand why we were invited. I started reading Learning Service, a book that talks about ethical volunteering abroad, and I did personal work toward dismantling that white savior complex that shows up sometimes. Upping my endurance by juggling a lot helped me feel confident I could consistently make it through three-show days.

Clowns Without Borders tours are so rewarding and challenging because they require all of who you are as a person and a performer. They require you to be grounded in yourself, culturally humble, curious as to why we’re going on tour, and able to process the privilege of travel and freedom of movement. –Naomi Shafer

L: I watched a documentary about Bahamian circle play, games, and music. I read about the history of the country and what had happened during Hurricane Dorian. I knew there would be so many variables during the tour and I wanted to trust that the work would show up. The other CWB artists were really experienced performers—it felt great to know that. I needed to be grounded before the trip, so I reached out to friends and family and set up times to check in.

What was hard?

E: It was all hard. When you’re on day eight and you’ve been speaking another language, driving ten hours a day in a bus…you get to a point where you don’t want to talk to anyone, you want personal space, you want to clean your costume, and you’re exhausted. But you’re in such a tight ensemble and you know you can lean on your fellow performers. You feel held. Also Naomi, you’re so attentive and you bring so much joy to this work. I’m grateful for this opportunity. Thank you. 

J: It was hard for me to get enough rest. Especially on three-show days, when we had an hour in between and I was hot and sweaty, it was hard to take that time to rest. Travel and driving took a bigger toll on me than I was expecting. But we had wonderful moments with four clowns in a van. 

L: There’s also a lot to process. You’re learning and there’s a lot of euphoria. I often worried if I handled interactions appropriately, but there wasn’t time to dwell on it.

What did you learn from your team?

J: Darina [Robles, CWB project partner and founder of Llaven Nü] said, “Believe in the yes.” Believe in the ideas you’re putting forward during show creation. That helped us make something in which everyone’s ideas felt included.

L: I learned so much from watching Meredith [Gordon] and Clay Mazing, two really experienced clowns. They both have such different tool kits available to them, so I would notice when they decided to bring different things forward.

What advice would you give your past self?

J: Find ways to hold on, decompress, and rest. Also, it all goes by so fast. Be present in each moment, in everything between the performances. Slow down. 

L: You can’t know what you don’t know yet. I found that the hardest part of the tour was when it ended. It felt incredible when each day had purpose and I knew I was doing something useful alongside other people who share my passion. When that structure dissolved—when I wasn’t learning something new every day—it was so hard. I wasn’t anticipating that.

J: I was bawling my eyes out in the Quito airport at the very end of the tour.

What changed for you since your return?  

Leora: I’ve found moments of entering into clown, especially during COVID-19 isolation, that have been such a source of solace. But there have been other moments when I can’t access it. I’ve worried about my income and my housing. I realized how important play is, and that sometimes you need help and guidance to access play when things feel overwhelming.

J: It has been important for me to create more than I consume. That creative process will come out even if it doesn’t feel perfect or right. Trust that it will flow and fall into place.

How can laughter be a tool for healing?

L: I’m still thinking over that question. The arts can help us synthesize and process the input we receive from the world, but we’re so overwhelmed right now. Our systems are laid bare. Clowning comes from a place of vulnerability and a desire to share that vulnerability. Right now, it feels like there’s nothing but vulnerability.

J: Initially I started to think about how every audience would have a different takeaway from your performance and show. It’s not necessarily the performer’s place to say what it is. During my juggling solos I might think, “Oh nobody’s laughing, I’m doing it wrong.” I realized that other emotions can come up, but we still have that place of laughter within us.

All the clowns say "Ta-Da!"

First of May Part 2: Dustin Allen, Melissa Aston, and Ania Upstill

In the American circus, “first of May” refers to someone who is in their first season with the circus. In that spirit, we interviewed three artists about their respective first CWB – USA tour. This is the second in a four-part conversation, continuing our discussion with CWB – USA Executive Director Naomi Shafer and artists Dustin Allen, Melissa Aston, and Ania Upstill. Click each artist’s name to learn more about their tour. 

CWB always works in teams. What did you learn from your team?

Ania: I learned a lot from Poki [the other CWB artist on tour] about listening and letting the process happen as we crafted the show. I’ve been working on listening since I went to Dell’Arte [International School of Physical Theatre] because I previously worked as a director and I have a very specific structure in mind. Poki is a wonderful listener and collaborator in that he’s much more willing to look at the flow. This was especially helpful when we worked in multiple languages.

Dustin: My team consisted of David Lichtenstein, an OG CWB clown, and Sabine Choucair, who runs Clown Me In in Lebanon. To quickly distill one thing I learned from each of them: Sabine showed me the power of entering a space. The moment she crosses the threshold, or even gets out of the vehicle, she brings energy. Her eyes grow to the size of the moon and she just radiates. We were told to watch out for the security guards, but they would laugh too. It was such a lesson in presence. David gave one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen. We were in Bosnia and he was really sick. We didn’t even know if he was going to be able to do the show. He was knocked out in the backseat of the car and when we got to our site, he arose from his state and put on one of the best individual performances I’ve ever seen in my life. The whole crowd was all about David for the whole show. They would only cheer when he entered the space. I saw this amazing resilience.

Melissa: My team was really varied and I had a lot to admire from each person. [Palhaços sem Fronteiras Brasil artist] Ana was our leader. She is an extremely capable person who played music for all of our acts and then ran to do her own act in between. That kept the whole show moving naturally. I was awed by that, the way she could switch directions. And then we had Faeble, who’s a wonderful American clown. He could come in and just take up the space, be present, and get everyone engaged with his character in just a look, or a laugh. He really knew how to connect with audience. Sorayla is a Brazilian clown who has a wonderful warmth about her, and the kids all knew her. She really connected with the kids in a way that made me admire her. We had one other person, Ricky, who was generous onstage, really giving a lot. He was someone who would perform a little bit and then run and take pictures. That back and forth isn’t something I could do.

What advice would you give yourself, or what do you want to remember for a future tour?

A: I think it’s important to talk to your team members about responsibilities and to set a check-in time. Make sure people are clear about who is doing what. Be aware that there’s a lot of emotional…people will have emotions about the things they see. These are situations that are not the easiest to witness. Try to allow yourself time to process. You’re going to be clowning and experiencing joy and laughter, and also feel sad and exhausted. Prepare yourself to be in that space.

D: It’s about not being afraid. Sometimes you really feel your privilege. In my experience, the audience members were happy to talk to us. They would ask us to tell people back home what was going on and asked us to share stories about their family, or their country, or their people. I spent a lot time being really self-critical, wondering whether I was good enough for them. A lot of people might say “Oh, you’re a professional performer so the stakes of the tour are probably a little bit lower, it’s a friendly crowd.” But actually no, it’s the highest stakes crowd I’ve ever performed for in my life. Know that people who are going through a hard time are giving you their attention. There’s pressure to make it worth their while; to take them away from what they’re going through as much as you can.

My job is to cast people who will treat every show like it’s their most important show. I need to make sure there isn’t an ego like, ‘Why aren’t we taking pictures of this show,’ or ‘Why isn’t there a program with my name on it.’ CWB seeks artists with skills, integrity, and also the humility and endurance to give each performance and audience member that care and presence. –Naomi Shafer

M: Communication is really key, especially when things come up. If they aren’t talked about or resolved in such a close-knit working environment, they can get more complicated. You should also take the pressure off yourself in terms of perfectionism. Of course you want to do your best, but that attitude can take away from the experience. It puts you in your head rather than being present within the environment. My advice is to look around and be more open. Remember self-care, taking care of the emotional aspects of touring. Make that part of a routine.

Do you view the news—and reporting about displacement and crisis—differently, now that you’ve experienced a CWB tour?

D: It’s been on my mind a lot because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve looked for reporting on vulnerable people and how they’re being treated. It seems so dangerous and our audiences were already living in a dangerous environment. I promised myself that I would be more vigilant in standing up for displaced people and refugees. I want to seriously engage with people who are misinformed. The tour changed my mindset and my goals in a huge way, and I’m trying to find more ways to get involved with human rights advocacy, activism, and policy. Performing is not necessarily the most important part of the CWB experience, and it continues to shake me up to this day.

M: I’m a little stymied in thinking about that question, but it’s deep in my awareness. Before the tour, I didn’t have a clue. Even about situations of displacement in my own country. The experience makes me question how things are in my own country, not just faraway lands. The audiences we met live in fragile, volatile situations but they also have a strength and resilience to live in those tenuous circumstances. I had never thought about that before, what it takes to live like that.

Why does laughing matter?

A: I really think that laughter helps people deal with trauma. It breaks a cycle of anxiety and allows people to take joy in the moment, even under oppressive circumstances. We’re all feeling that now, with most people under some form of restriction. Of course that varies depending on where you are, but we can now see the importance of presence and joy in the little things.

Poki balances on Ania's shoulders, in front of a large outdoor audience

First of May Part 1: Dustin Allen, Melissa Aston, and Ania Upstill

CWB – USA Executive Director Naomi Shafer interviewed Dustin Allen, Melissa Aston, and Ania Upstill on May 1 2020. In American circus, “First of May” is a nickname for somebody who is in the circus for the first time. These three artists went on their first CWB tours in 2019. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

What kind of clown are you?

Ania: I’m Ania Upstill. I’m currently in New Zealand and I’m a very joyful clown. 

Dustin: My name is Dustin Allen. I’m in northern British Colombia, in western Canada. When I was with CWB, I was a musical clown who fell down a lot. 

Melissa: I’m Melissa Aston, from Vancouver British Colombia. What kind of clown am I? I’m Cosmo, very clueless, somewhat conceited, and not very smart.

Where did you go on your first CWB tour and why was CWB touring to that location?

A: My first tour was in Palestine, April 2019. The tour aimed to build skills with clowns who were already there. We partnered with Diyar Theatre company to address the very difficult and traumatic experience of living under occupation.

D: I was on the Balkan Tour in February 2019. We toured through Bosnia, Serbia and up to Romania. We were performing in official and unofficial camps for displaced people who were arriving from all over the Middle East and Africa. They were mostly traveling on foot, trying to get through Slovenia and Italy to Western Europe. People in the camps had stayed there from anywhere between a couple of weeks to over a year.

M: In September 2019 I went to the state of Mato Grosso du Sol, in Brazil. We were there to provide some kind of comic relief to the Indigenous populations, to the Guarnaí people who have been displaced due to industrial agriculture.

How did you learn about CWB?

A: I heard about CWB a few years ago, before I was a clown. I thought it was amazing but didn’t think it was something that I could do. I went to Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. One of my faculty members at the time, Sayda Trujillo, is a CWB board member. Sayda did a whole seminar on CWB and that made me really want to do it—she was very encouraging of us to apply.

D: I became aware of CWB in 2012 or 2013. I went to Dell’Arte and I always considered a CWB-type project to be a goal or bucket list thing. I sent in an application as soon as I graduated in 2014 and I didn’t hear back until 2019!

M: I’ve been clowning for a number of years and I’ve known about CWB for about 20 years. I went to school in San Francisco at Clown Conservatory—part of Circus Center—and was familiar with [CWB – USA founder] Moshe Cohen. Around 2016, I decided that it was time to try and go on tour. I was scheduled to go to Turkey and Lebanon but that tour fell through for political and safety reasons. I’ve been in the database for a long time and I finally got the chance to go on tour. It worked out really well. 

There are a lot of different timelines for going on a CWB tour. The process of casting a tour involves a magical juggling act: availability; cancellations; personalities; complimentary skill sets, etc.

-Naomi Shafer

How did you prepare for your first tour?

A: The most important thing for me was talking to the other clowns that would be on tour, and talking to our coordinator in Palestine to determine how we wanted to work together. I decided which instruments to bring, which skills and costume pieces, and let that frame my preparation.

D: I was in school at the time, so a huge part of my preparation was rescheduling all of my exams and arranging a month off of classes. I was going with two really experienced people [Sabine Choucair and David Lichtenstein], and I reached out to them. They said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll go with the flow.” I tried to not psyche myself out too much. I trusted that they would take care of me, and they did. 

M: I like to be prepared. I spent weeks getting new costume pieces, a pile of snacks, and stuff for emergencies. I brought a huge suitcase of props, snacks, and equipment…and I didn’t use hardly any of them! Because you don’t know, right? You just think you might need something, so I brought a lot of toys. 

I guess I really emphasize packing snacks. That’s what I was thinking about on tour last year.

-Naomi Shafer

What was a golden moment from your tour?

A: We visited the circus school in Nablus, in the West Bank. It was amazing to see the community built around circus. It gives young people a place to come and play and what they’ve done with limited resources is really incredible. There was a beautiful, beautiful audience with lots of families and a wide age range. Afterward, we got to talk to circus artists and young people involved in the school. 

D: Romania was the last country we toured. We were able to go really deep into the interior and perform a couple shows for Roma communities. The audiences were the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever encountered in my life. They were so generous. We stayed over one night and I got to play music with two brothers who are touring musicians. They handed me a guitar to play, and I didn’t recognize the tuning. I tried to tune it by ear, and I worried they would think less of me because I was kind of struggling. But then they took it away from me and returned it to the original tuning. They handed it back like, “No, this is the tuning.” That was such an experience and I felt really immersed in a special atmosphere. 

M: Actually, I wrote about this. We had just received some really bad news and it was emotionally affecting the whole group. I had a really bad and hard day. We went out to this little school and did a show there. The kids came out to greet us, and they were so sweet and wonderful. Being around them completely changed my emotional state. I was able to feel the joy that they were embodying. It helped me see the transformative power in some of the stuff we do, and I felt like I was given that gift from them. 

What was hard?

A: I learned a lot about the situation in Palestine and the West Bank from [tour partners] Rami, Osamaa, and Ahmad, and from the communities we visited. Poki [the other American clown on tour] and I processed by taking really long walks to talk through how we were working fully as a team, how we were working with just the two of us, and how to best communicate. We wanted to be careful to collaborate but also lead the process as the more experienced clowns. There was a lot of walking and talking around Bethlehem. 

D: I was lucky to be with two really experienced humanitarian clowns. That’s not to say they were unshakable, because some of the places we went, things we saw, and conditions that migrants are living in—it would shake anyone. I had my eyes torn open the most, though, because I was the youngest and I’d never seen anything like that. We had really long drives, which were tough. But it ended up as time to sit together and talk through things, and also have silence to contemplate what we’d gone through. A lot of the difficulty was ameliorated by being with two awesomely experienced people to guide me through. 

M: We had a meeting every night in which we talked through stuff that would come up during the day. That was helpful, but there was so much coming at us from the tough atmosphere in Brazil. It can become fairly intense when you’re working in a close creative environment. Everyone felt it if something wasn’t quite right within our group. I’m pretty introverted and I like to go off on my own to write and keep a journal. Writing helped me emotionally process all the stuff that was coming at us. I also have my own physical process of moving energy out of my space, which I do pretty much every day. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this conversation! 


Woman in yellow speaks and looks toward the camera

World Humanitarian Day 2020

World Humanitarian Day

Today is World Humanitarian Day, commemorating aid workers who are killed or injured in the course of their work, and those who continue to serve others despite the odds.

Humanitarian aid is intended to save lives and preserve dignity in the face of disaster, human-made or otherwise. It also seeks to strengthen preparedness for such disasters. Humanitarian aid situates itself within overlapping and accelerating crises: climate change, forced displacement, the COVID-19 pandemic, and global inequality, to name a few. World Humanitarian Day specifically designates the August 19th, 2003, bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed 22 people. That tragedy illustrated the extreme risk to 21st century aid workers.

The Changing Face of Aid

Aid workers were not always considered targets but the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq, plus subsequent overlap among military and humanitarian operations, eviscerated local trust in outside actors. As a result, aid orgs had to prioritize worker safety like never before, separating workers from the populations they were meant to serve. Today, many organizations run remote field offices staffed by locals, while international workers serve in more secure locations, like capital cities.*

As natural and human-made disaster overlap and exacerbate one another, the humanitarian aid sector has learned from local responsiveness. The word “aid” often evokes images of vaccines, pounds of rice distributed, and debris removed. These life-saving services are essential. But another key aspect of humanitarian aid is upholding human dignity. How does an organization deliver aid without disempowering the recipients? Local leaders provide partner organizations and humanitarian aid headquarters with critical insight into their communities.

CWB – USA and Humanitarian Aid

CWB is a small non-profit, and we have the honor of partnering with local leaders who often include the field office employees of a larger NGO or humanitarian aid organization. These individuals champion CWB. They know when it’s the right time for clowns, and when it’s too soon. Field staff work longer hours when they partner with us, buying props, procuring snacks, providing translation, and documenting the show. They also become involved in the whimsy of producing a clown tour! CWB is immensely grateful to recent humanitarian aid tour partners Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados-Ecuador (SJR-EC) and Gift of the Givers, which supported CWB on our Ecuador and Zimbabwe tours, respectively.

We’re able to do our work because we know that aid workers are providing essential services and material support—ensuring survival so healing can begin. Clowns are not emergency providers, and they don’t “make someone laugh.” Instead, CWB artists try to enlarge that healing space by inviting audiences to gather in levity and emotional relief. Aid workers are part of our audience, too. It’s deeply moving to see aid workers laughing alongside the communities they serve and live within.

Humanitarian aid is often talked about in huge numbers and insurmountable odds. Today, CWB – USA celebrates the resilience of aid workers and the intimate moments when we’re able to connect through laughter.

*For more on this topic, see The New Humanitarian: “COVID-19 changed the world. Can it change aid too?” 

Darina chases children in her chicken costume

UNICEF Helps Girls Share Their COVID-19 Stories

What does resilience look like these days? UNICEF’s “Coping With COVID-19” video series highlights sixteen girls from nine different countries, as they document their daily life during COVID. CWB – USA envisions a future in which children are free to exercise their human rights, including self-expression, play and self-discovery. We love the resilience and curiosity on display in these videos. Take a look:


Parents and children laugh during a show in Mexico

When Children Take the Lead: New UN Report

The United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children recently published a report titled “When children take the lead: 10 child participation approaches to tackle violence.” This report draws parallels between the development of the internet and the enactment of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Both offer unprecedented participatory access, affecting global perspectives on childhood. But have access and participation generated lasting change over the past 30 years? The report presents a case study of 10 different child-participation programs, each one aimed at preventing violence.

Child Participation

The UNCRC changed the way children are viewed—they are active participants in their own lives, with distinct rights and perspectives on their own best interests. Clowns Without Borders adheres to the UNCRC as a guiding document, and knows that the child leads in every clowning interaction. As any CWB artist will tell you, kids know what they like. Our tours are constant works in process as artists tweak their acts to better resonate with audience reactions .

Perhaps one of the most groundbreaking aspects of the UNCRC is its provision that children express their views on matters concerning their own lives, and that their views be taken seriously by governments and other authorities. The Convention is legally binding. Yet children’s voices are conspicuously absent from global debates and, even worse, prominent youth activists are often derided for their age despite holding unique rights and privileges to speak on issues concerning their own lives. Child participation requires inclusion and mutual respect from adults. The “When children take the lead” report found that children increasingly take initiative and create participatory spaces for themselves.

Internet Access and Getting Results

The report suggests that many children see adults seamlessly interact with their phones, treating them as personal assistants with instant answers—in other words, using their device to exert control over their own lives. As more and more children access the internet and become similarly accustomed to participation, control, and results, how will that influence their expectations of decision-making power? Are governments and other authorities ready to allow children’s participation to yield actual results and policy decisions?

After all, children wield the power of the internet to generate massive and impactful action. They don’t have to wait for adult-granted spaces. “When children take the lead” finds:

This growing power to participate, coupled with the means to do so, is making headlines. For example, in 2009, aged just 11, Malala Yousafzai wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC Urdu service about her life during the Taliban occupa on of Swat, Pakistan, which encouraged a movement advocating for girls’ rights to education and won her the 2014 Nobel Prize.

There are so many others: the Chilean students’ movement in 2011; the ‘bucket challenge’ that went viral in 2014 using social media to tell a global audience about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, with over 17 million people posting videos online; and the ‘Not Too Young To Run’ campaign in Nigeria to reduce the age limit for running for elected office, which has now turned into a larger global movement. We have seen 16 and 17 year-olds expressing their disappointment that they could not vote in the UK’s 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum in 2016; the 2018 March for our Lives campaign, with adolescents organizing one of the biggest youth-led protests in the USA since the Viet Nam war; and Greta Thunberg mobilizing thousands around climate change.

Case Studies

Silenced children cannot self-advocate nor make change. It’s clear that children are eager to participate, but are decision-makers ready to accept what they have to say? “When children take the lead” examined 10 different initiatives, including governmental, NGO and civil society programs. Two are global, two are multilateral (Malawi and Guatemala, and Nigeria and USA), one is regionally based in Europe, and the remaining five hail from Chile, India, Tanzania, Malaysia, Mexico. They cover a range of issues pertaining to violence against children, including bullying, gender-based violence and child marriage, labor, and LGBTQ+ discrimination.

The report goes on to classify each initiative based on its type of child participation. For example, did children come up with the idea? Do they implement its programming? Finally, the report questions whether children are beneficiaries, partners, and/or leaders in the initiative. “When children take the lead” concludes that the most successful case studies are those that allow children to design and lead based on issues they have identified, and which encourage peer-to-peer approaches. The successful initiatives have clear achievements and ongoing participation.

Click here to learn more about the 10 case studies and specific findings!







Kolleen blows bubbles in Lesvos

Ethical Volunteering

Did you know that all Clowns Without Borders artists volunteer their time during a tour? These professionals donate their abilities and expertise to craft responsive, culturally humble performance tours that create space for levity amidst crisis.

Code of Ethics

CWB tours all over the world. Each community is different, each crisis is different, and every volunteer situation is infinitely complex. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, or like we can’t possibly understand everything we need to know about the communities we serve. And that’s true. As outsiders we cannot know what it’s like to live through the crisis our audience is experiencing. Making assumptions will only take us further away from listening to our audiences. Instead, we lead with empathy, local wisdom, and cultural humility.

Clowns Without Borders International has a Code of Ethics, to which all chapters adhere. The Code of Ethics guides staff, performer, and non-performing volunteer behavior before, during, and after a tour. It states that CWB artists are not on tour to impart a “point of view,” nor may they “educate” the population they’re serving. The Code of Ethics also asks that artists continue to share their experiences after they return home, spreading awareness about crises of forced displacement.

How We Work

The ethics of volunteering extends beyond artist and staff behavior, and deep into how we organize a tour from the very beginning. Perhaps most importantly, CWB only goes where it’s invited. That means we know the communities we serve asked for our presence. We trust our community partners to tell us if our presence is appropriate, or if the arrival of clowns could threaten or strain the community. There’s a lot of safety and trust to be gained when we know people want our performances.

We always work with a local organization and almost always include local artists on a performance team. Audiences may connect more freely with performers who look like them and speak their language. A local organization can provide invaluable guidance and leadership for logistics, safety, and cultural sensitivity. The wisdom of our project partners and diverse performing teams allows us to create culturally humble and appropriate performances.


Volunteering can easily transform into voluntourism: when an outside organization creates short-term volunteer experiences solely for the benefit of the unskilled volunteer, and with little regard for a community’s needs. Voluntoursim feeds the volunteer’s ego and sense of accomplishment. CWB addresses voluntourism through the mechanisms described above: Waiting for a community’s request; working with expert artists and educators; and following the lead of local organizers.

But don’t CWB tours fly in, perform, and then leave? Aren’t fleeting clown performances pretty short-term? How do we know our performances are creating the kind of lasting impact the community desires? It’s true that CWB artists enter and leave communities in a short period of time. But we have a few practices to address our short-term presence:

  • CWB doesn’t exchange anything except laughter. We don’t give away supplies, because we’re there to celebrate the abundance of joy within a community. Our performances are always free and everyone is welcome. There’s no queue to stand in or requirements to be met.
  • CWB often returns to communities because our performances and workshops are repeatedly requested.
  • Voluntourism sets the outsider up as the expert. As outsider clowns, CWB artists are the butt of jokes, the listeners, the cheerleaders, and the fools who just don’t get how daily life is supposed to function. Our audiences and community partners are the experts. As CWB – USA artist Leora Sapon-Shevin says, “Hierarchy is a barrier to connecting with others because it denies both parties their sense of humanity. There’s a real sense of presence in social clowning, of openness to what others are offering.
  • Our three-year strategic plan includes developing an assessment matrix for long-term impact and support for long-term partnerships with Cali Clown in Colombia, and Diyar Theatre in Palestine.
  • Audience laughter and post-show feedback gives us an immediate sense of whether our presence is wanted, or not! Read some audience feedback from Palestine, here.

First-time CWB artists talk about their experiences on tour:

Clown School: An Interview With Selena McMahan

In this series, CWB – USA interviews artists and educators about their experience in clown school. Next up, CWB’s Communications Director Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone talks to CWB – USA board member Selena McMahan, a graduate of The Jacques Lecoq School.

Selena is an actor-clown with the Parisian hospital clown company Le Rire Médecin and a teaching artist with Association Peekaboo! She is also the artistic director of “Inclownito.”

Nicole: How and when did you first start clowning?

Selena: My path was kind of roundabout. I went to liberal arts undergrad at Bowdoin, where I self-designed my own major. I was doing theater and dance when I heard that Moshe [Cohen, founder of CWB – USA] was teaching a workshop in Brooklyn. I had seen Moshe perform when I was a child and I knew that CWB existed, so I knew who he was. Certain people stood out to me at the workshop with their strong understanding of clown, and they all had Pochinko clown training in common.

The workshop got me interested in further training. I came across John Turner [founder of The Clown Farm, now known as Manitoulin Conservatory for Creation and Performance, which is rooted in the work of Richard Pochinko], who teaches on an island in northern Ontario, and I did a workshop with the New York Goofs [now Laughter League].

Nicole: What happened next?

Selena: After those trainings, I heard about the Watson Fellowship, which grants funding to recently-graduated students so they can design and pursue a project outside of the U.S. The first thing that came to mind was CWB. I had heard more about CWB at Moshe’s workshop, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I got the grant, propelling me into the work itself without having too much formal training. CWB allowed me to join a tour as the “clown schlepper,” but eventually the other artists decided I could just be in the show. I visited and performed with a lot of hospital clowns and was able to do weekly training in Brazil.

Nicole: How did your year as a Watson Fellow impact your future decisions about clown training?

Selena: After that year, I thought I should pursue more formal training and I considered going to Dell’Arte because I was exposed to lots of performers who had studied there. But the people who stood out to me in with amazing listening skills in their hospital clown work, had all gone to the Jacques Lecoq School. I had heard all kinds of not-so-great things about the culture of the school, but I decided I needed to go there. It helped that I spent time in France as a kid, so it was relatively easy to move to Paris.

Nicole: What kinds of not-so-great things did you hear? And despite that, it still seemed like the right place?

Selena: Pochinko went to Lecoq, but might have been kind of kicked out in the middle of the first year. His clown is inspired by that school, but so much freer, more mystical, spiritual, and intuitive. So in a way, I went from the more intuitive training—just going for it with performing—to a much more formal training afterward. I had already broken out, so I wanted to adhere to more formal training.

Nicole: What is the Lecoq School like?

Selena: I learned so much there. The environment is very…strict, or formal. But the pedagogy is amazing. When I think back to the performers I saw who had gone there, they had this ability to make something out of nothing. The school teaches that skill with a strong rigor. It’s about how to build a scene, a universe, write a script, a climax, and create a surprise at the end. It’s the science of building things that are invisible. To do it, you analyze human behavior and see it through different lenses. Each week, I felt like I was seeing a new world. It was an amazing experience.

Nicole: What does the application require?

Selena: It’s pretty straight forward. You write a motivation letter and send a resume. But my first year, there were 90 students to start and they might not ask you back at the end of the first trimester, and then they cut down to 30 students after the first year. The whole first year is an audition. So that part is harsh.

Nicole: How did you feel coming out of that process?

Selena: After school I worked to regain my sense of freedom, to not feel locked into the formality. Today, when I think about myself, I have a balance between the intuition and the formal training. Now, my work as a hospital clown is all improvisation. Recently, I’ve felt able to meld those two perspectives. I don’t lose sight of how to create a strong scenario. It’s in the back of my mind but I’m able to be present and free. I’ve studied with a lot of people since then, but most of the training I’ve done is connected to hospital clown work. It’s about fine-tuning things, like a theater muscle workout. The basic building blocks of my training are Pochinko and Lecoq. Those are the revolutionary ones, and everything since then has been coaching.

Nicole: What advice do you have for people who are researching clown school?

Selena: People need to know whether they want to perform or whether they want to expand themselves. If clown school is to expand your horizons, you might want a teacher who’s more generous and good at watching out for their students. Look for workshops and descriptions that excite you, and that sound like a caring environment. If you really want to perform, you should work with a teacher who understands the building blocks of clown and will help you structure your performances, pull out your best clown character, and push your limits.

Another approach is to seek out alumni of institutions you’re interested in, but which might require more years of training than you’re ready to commit. As the years go by, I really get the sense that great clown pedagogy comes from a specific lineage. I see disciples of clown masters I’ve studied with put their own spin on teaching, and I can see the lineages of pedagogy.


Selena recommends the following teachers and school as a resource for artists interested in the Lecoq tradition: 

Ami Hattab 


Hélène Gustin


Lory Leshin 


Clown school in tradition of Lecoq but much more focused on clown:


Interested in the hospital clown program Selena works for? You can train with them!



Clowns shot from the back, facing an audience seated on a hillside

What Does “Internally Displaced Person” Mean?

Internally Displaced Person, or IDP, refers to someone who is forced to flee their home but remains within their country of origin. Refugees may cross national boundaries to seek safety, but IDPs are unable, or choose not, to do so. They often remain beyond the reach of humanitarian services because of unsafe conditions within their home country. At the end of 2019, 50.8 million people were internally displaced.

Forty-two percent of all IDPs are in three countries: 7.9 million people in Colombia; 6.1 million people in Syria; and 4.5 million people in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some countries, like Ukraine and Ethiopia, have an IDP crisis but not a refugee crisis. Critically, IDPs lack special status under international law, unlike refugees. Refugees are supposed to be awarded rights specific to their situation. The United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement sets out the obligations of national governments toward IDPs, but it is not international law.

IDPs and Urbanization

The majority of IDPs live outside formal camps, further separating them from services. As the world’s population becomes more urbanized overall, IDPs follow suit. Many flee from rural to urban settings because of livelihood loss due to climate change, natural or human-made disaster, or infrastructure projects like dams or forestry. People are at risk of continued displacement within urban settings because of urban development that pushes into informal, impoverished, or semi-urban fringe areas of cities. In informal, resource-scarce settings, urban residents may see an influx of IDPs as competition, putting them at increased risk of violence and discrimination.

Urban density presents an opportunity for IDPs to access services. However, they may be denied services like education, housing support, and healthcare because of lack of documentation. The registration system within formal refugee camps allows people to be counted and, in theory, receive the services they need.

CWB – USA and IDPs

Clowns Without Borders USA is proud to serve IDPs. We toured to Myanmar at the end of 2018 and performed a mine safety show for IDPs, in partnership with Mines Advisory Group. In Brazil, the Indigenous communities we served survive under constant threat of displacement due to agricultural intrusion onto their lands. We toured Colombia with Cali Clown and worked with youth who are at risk for gang recruitment. Colombia, which is home to 7.9 million IDPs, has experienced repeated displacement due to civil war, gang violence, natural disasters, and climate change-induced livelihood loss. According to UNICEF, the poorest urban children in Colombia are better able to access services than their rural counterparts, yet they are extremely vulnerable to gang and military recruitment or conscription.

Lebanon 2017

Clown School: An Interview with Hannah Gaff

In this series, CWB – USA interviews artists and educators about their experience in clown and circus school. First up, CWB’s Communications Director Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone talks to Hannah Gaff, a graduate of Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre and a faculty member at the Clown Conservatory, part of Circus Center in San Francisco.

Nicole: When did you first go to clown school?

Hannah: I attended the one-year program at Dell’Arte in 2008–2009. It’s a physical theater training program and clowning was one part of it. At the time, the director was a clown, so it was the basis of his teaching. I was accepted into their MFA program but decided not to go because I wanted to start making my own work. I went back five years later to finish my degree.

Nicole: Why did you choose Dell’Arte?

Hannah: I went to Dell’Arte straight out of undergrad. I loved theater, but I didn’t want to enter into the whole audition, memorizing lines thing. It didn’t appeal to me. I chose a physical theater school so I could create my own work and break out of the box I was in, the roles I was allowed to play. The physical aspect was the access point. It served as a tool for storytelling that bypasses the intellectual. My experience at Dell’Arte kind of blew my mind. I started to understand what it might mean to be an artist and not just an actor. I started to understand my strengths and where I needed to grow. I saw the potential of live performance and how much it can impact people.

Nicole: But you decided not to stay and pursue the MFA at that point?

Hannah: I felt like I couldn’t absorb any more information until I went out and made my own work. I moved to NYC for a year, but it wasn’t for me. I moved to California, started a theater company, and learned a ton. I began to understand what I was missing and I developed a vision for the impact I wanted to have. I knew if I studied at Dell’Arte for two more years, I could develop those tools.

Nicole: Now you teach at Clown Conservatory. What should prospective students know about the main differences between Dell’Arte and Clown Conservatory?

Hannah: Dell’Arte, is an ensemble-based physical theater school. The Clown Conservatory is, at the moment, six months of training set up on a part-time schedule, and it’s specifically clown. They call it human cartoon. To my knowledge, it’s one of the only places where you can study clown on its own. 

Nicole: What do you love about the learning environment at Clown Conservatory?

Hannah: There’s something really important about an intensive setting for learning, because you put in an incredible amount of energy and there’s less of a barrier to full immersion. An intensive setting, like a conservatory or degree program, asks you to fully show up every day. It’s great to see how students develop a perspective on the kind of work they want to make, their strengths as a clown, what they want to say in the world, what it means to craft a story, what they want their audience to feel, and how to be with the audience.

Nicole: What advice would you give someone who is trying to choose a clown school, or is wondering whether formal training is right for them?

Hannah: It can be really helpful to write out who you are as an artist. What compels you to be a clown, what pushes you to make that commitment? What do you hope to discover? Do you want to take a class to see what it’s like? Or do you want to create work? It’s never too late, and Dell’Arte sometimes prefers to have older students because they come in with their own perspective.

Nicole: What’s one thing people can expect to gain from clown school?

Hannah: You should be prepared to develop tools of vulnerability. Clowning parallels life, and it’s really transformative. It helps you learn about yourself.

Learn more about the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatere, and Clown Conservatory at the Circus Center

Clowns Without Borders Girl Laughs Hard

How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts Refugees

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt and upended people’s sense of security. The unknown, and all its associated stress and fear, has become the new normal.

It’s important to remember that global crises of inequity continue, and worsen, amid the pandemic. Clowns Without Borders International wrote in its statement regarding the human rights catastrophe along EU borders:

“As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, all of us are in search of safety for ourselves and our loved ones. Meanwhile, on the borders of Europe, many people are also in desperate need of safety from war and persecution. How much more difficult is their plight now, in the face of the current global pandemic?”

This statement applies to migrant and refugee crises around the world, not just at the EU border. Displaced people often lack access to basic material resources, face discrimination, and are denied human rights, like clean water, health care, or the ability to travel. How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting some of the most vulnerable people on the planet?

Exposing Weaknesses

According to the UNHCR, over eighty percent of the world’s refugees and almost all internally displaced people (IDP) are hosted in low- or middle-income countries where resources are scarce. If it wasn’t already clear, this pandemic reveals our global community to be as healthy as the sickest person among us and as safe as the most vulnerable. Refugees and migrants often live in crowded conditions where social distancing is impossible, and medical facilities are ill-equipped. The UNHCR has rushed to provide emergency medical equipment and expertise, but it’s a bandaid for a larger wound.

Prevention and Inclusion

The majority of refugees are hosted in countries with weak or inadequate health systems. Stopping the spread of COVID-19 is imperative, and it becomes even more so when few treatment options exist. The UNHCR is using a multisectoral response, which coordinates access to water, sanitation and hygiene, housing, medical care, and more, to support refugee communities and refugee-hosting nations. The agency is also working to stockpile supplies, identify outbreak response teams, and monitor misinformation.

Displaced people experience discrimination and xenophobia, and may even be denied a nationality. Now, fear, a sense of helplessness, and media rhetoric may impact pubic opinion about who “deserves” access to medical care. A coordinated COVID-19 response will not leave anyone behind, no matter their legal status or nationality. A highly contagious disease can only be controlled if everyone is included in prevention and education, and everyone has access to equitable treatment.

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, write:

“Panic and discrimination never solved a crisis. Political leaders must take the lead, earning trust through transparent and timely information, working together for the common good, and empowering people to participate in protecting health.

Ceding space to rumour, fear mongering and hysteria will not only hamper the response but may have broader implications for human rights, the functioning of accountable, democratic institutions.”


Whether a someone is confined to a camp or fully integrated into a new community—or something in between—refugees and displaced people are vital members of society. They are teachers, farmers, care-givers, artists, engineers and more, and they are working tirelessly to subdue the COVID-19 pandemic:



  • Even when resources are scarce, members of refugee camps find ways to care for one another.