Q&A: Spanish clowns make refugees laugh with their favourite girlfriend

News Stories, 23 February 2011

© UNHCR/P.Bertscchmann
Tortell Poltrona, the clown with the red nose, performs at UNHCR's 60th birthday party in Geneva.

GENEVA, February 23 (UNHCR) Jaume Mateu is a legend in the circus world of Spain's Catalonia region, where he's better known as Tortell Poltrona, the clown with the red nose. But when he grew up during the rule of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, laughter was a scarce commodity and clowns faced a lot of restrictions. At home in Barcelona, Mateu founded Circ Cric and the Circus Arts Research Centre and worked with other famous clowns and artists, including Joan Miró and Joan Brossa. But, as a founder and stalwart of Payasos sin Fronteras (Circus Without Borders), the 55-year-old has brought joy and happiness to thousands of young refugees and internally displaced people across the world. He has often worked with UNHCR and last December performed at the refugee agency's 60th birthday party in Geneva. He talked with UNHCR Web Editor Leo Dobbs. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us a bit about how you personally got started

I grew up after the [1936-39 Spanish] Civil War. During the Franco dictatorship it was hard to find clowns in Spain, especially those with the nerve to speak in Catalan. I was one of the few clowns in Catalonia performing in Catalan and that's how I started to make money and to build my circus . . . I think being a clown is a revolutionary act.

I started to work in 1974 as a professional . . . I learned from performing on the street. I was in touch with other people who wanted to work as clowns and were also working in the streets and parks. I met, for example, the famous Swiss clown Dimitri. I loved the job and I felt that we all have a bit of the clown inside us.

Children are natural clowns because everything they feel, they express. When they grow up and become adults, they start to lie. Children don't lie. We [clowns] feel this purity with children. And history is full of clowns. Two saints, Genesius and Philomene, were professional clowns.

What about the origins of Clowns Without Borders?

I was asked by the children at a school in Barcelona to go to the Istria Peninsula in Croatia to perform for refugee children there [from the Yugoslav Wars of 1991-1995]. The Spanish children were in contact with the refugees through a volunteer programme. From the Istrian Peninsula, the refugees told the Catalan children: "You know what we miss most? We miss laughter, to have fun, to enjoy ourselves." So the Spanish kids asked me to travel there with a troupe and we went [in 1993] by car. The children in Barcelona raised funds to pay for the trip and they came with us to Croatia a group of 12-year-old children. After that first experience for the proto Clowns without Borders, we started to tell other clowns in Spain about our experience and set up a collective. In the first year [1993-1994], we organized 12 expeditions to the Balkans.

We began in Istria and after that we went to Mostar [in Bosnia and Herzegovina]. We received help from UNHCR and Spanish troops serving there, who provided transport to reach more children in the area . . . And later, Clowns Without Borders began to perform in Sarajevo, and always in refugee camps. All of our volunteers are professional circus artists and they fly out once a year and spend 20-25 days in the field with two or three shows a day.

When we started, it might have seemed like a joke to some people. An NGO with clowns in the middle of a war! It was surreal. At first we wondered what we were doing, but after the first experience it was such a powerful and emotional feeling. There was a very warm welcome and the visit was very helpful for the children.

When did the movement start growing?

After 1994, a Clown Without Borders section opened and then clowns set up official national sections in the USA, Sweden, Belgium, South Africa, Canada, Ireland, Germany and France. We are trying to set up an international federation. But they are all clowns, so it's difficult to organize anything.

And what happened next with your branch, Payasos sin Fronteras?

After the Dayton Agreement [of 1995], the war ended in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We continued working there, but also started going to other places. We entertained refugees from Western Sahara in Algeria, and then we went to see Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Today, Payasos Sin Fronteras works in about a dozen countries and we perform about 400 times per year before up to 200,000 children . . . Our headquarters is in Barcelona and we have five permanent staff and some 200 volunteers, including clowns and magicians. And we also have about 1,200 members, who help us cover administration costs and the pay of permanent staff. We use funding from private and public donors to pay for our overseas trips.

We have mostly Spanish and Argentinean clowns, but sometimes we collaborate with other national sections. In 2010, for example, we worked with Clowns Without Frontiers USA in Haiti. We raised some money and with this we were able to fly out two troupes from the United States, instead of just one from Spain.

You have been collaborating with UNHCR right from the start. Tell us a bit about this relationship

In partnership with UNHCR, we have projects in [Democratic Republic of the] Congo, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and in 2009 we worked in Angola . . . We have a particularly good relationship with UNHCR and its office in Madrid. For us, UNHCR is like a favourite girlfriend.

In Congo, thanks to UNHCR we have been able to perform in the camps in [the volatile province of] North Kivu. Also thanks to UNHCR, we were able to train Iraqi women volunteers in Syria how to help other refugees recover from trauma. We also train local artists and coordinate with UNHCR on messages we want to pass through our performances related to education, health, protection and violence against women. We could not have done this without UNHCR and I hope for continued cooperation.

What sticks in your mind from all your trips?

I've done more than 30 missions. For me, each mission has something special and I learn a lot every time. I really make my mark with this red nose. From behind the nose I see many things. I look, when I'm performing, at the people; I look at the fragility and also the good things and the sad things of humanity. In this situation, you see the best and the worst in humans.

One of the things that I remember from the early expeditions was that after we did a performance, people from different ethnic groups would eat together. This made me start to think about the power of the nose. In 2007, during a mission to the [ethnically divided] town of Mitrovice in Kosovo, Serbian and Kosovar [Albanian] children sat together for the first time to watch our show. They went to the same school, but the Serbs studied in the morning and the Kosovars in the afternoon. Thanks to Clowns Without Borders, they sat together.

Another time, I arrived in Sri Lanka 10 days after the Indian Ocean tsunami [of December 26, 2004] with Médecins Sans Frontières. We performed on the first day of the school term at a high school where only 700 of the 1,500 children survived the tsunami. After the performance, the director came and said, "People have brought mattresses, blankets and medicine, but until now nobody gives us life. You let us laugh and smile and you give us life.

Is it dangerous where you go?

We are always anxious that our presence does not bring harm to any of the communities that we visit and we try to not get involved in political arguments. But we have had problems in some areas. I was once kidnapped for 24 hours by Croatian militia. Over a period of several days, I travelled to camps to perform for Bosnian children, but I had to pass through a checkpoint manned by the militia. I'd say, "hello" and "goodbye." But one day when I arrived and said "hello," I heard the sound of guns being cocked. Then one of them said, "You're not going to the Bosnians. Today, you're going to play for our children."

Do you think that your work with displaced people makes a difference?

I think there is one reality before we arrive and one reality after. For example, in 2005 I went to the Balkans and visited a neighbourhood that had been reconstructed with the help of the city council of Barcelona. One 24-year-old woman came up and said, "Thank you for making me smile 12 years ago." She also showed me some confetti that she had collected from that show. In one hospital we visited, a child suffering from trauma started to talk to one of our clowns after being silent for three years. If you can reach within that child with positive feelings, they can start to smile, to laugh.

So it is important to laugh?

Yes, yes, it's very important. Tears and smiles are very close.