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Clown Without Borders 

Why would a former S.F. stockbroker travel to war-torn countries and refugee camps just to make people laugh?

Wednesday, Dec 4 2002
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Page 6 of 7

The international network of clowns has performed for Saharan refugees in Algeria, street children in Brazil and Romania, Chernobyl refugees in Cuba, and Somalian refugees in Kenya; they've visited places as far-flung as Israel, Colombia, and Kosovo. Though they enter controversial areas, the clowns do not take a political stance. "It's a humanitarian organization, not a political organization," Cohen says. "If we take sides, we can't do the work. But we inform the public and denounce human injustice."

The organization is also careful to go into areas where the bare necessities already exist. "We did a show in a gypsy camp in Kosovo, and their situation was bad," Cohen recalls. "They had tents, not much of anything else. There was one spigot for water. After our performance, a woman came to us and said, 'Why are you bringing us clowns when we don't have any food?' We try to avoid that situation; that is not our purpose."

The American contingent focuses on Chiapas, but Cohen has been aching to return to the Bhutanese camps in Nepal, which he visited in 1997. The refugees -- Bhutanese citizens who are ethnically Nepalese -- were forced out of Bhutan in the late '80s because the government feared the dilution of the country's native culture.

"The hardest thing of it is that they're in these camps; they're not suffering in that there is food and clothing and shelter, and schools for the kids," Cohen says. "But they can't go anywhere and they don't see a solution in sight. Because they are in a peaceful situation, they are invisible. But there's a monotony, a sense of hopelessness from being away from their homes, and it's unclear if they can ever go back."

The audiences for the Bhutanese camp performances were enormous. Up to 5,000 refugees crowded in for the twice-daily shows over three days. "People kept coming, and there would be other people jumping over other people to see," Cohen says. "They were squished so tight you would see this wall of people lean one way as if they were all going to topple over."

After the show, the clowns were swarmed with children, who stretched out their arms to shake hands. Sometimes seven children would grab Cohen's hand at once.

"We were all very moved by the experience," Cohen says. "It was like a rock 'n' roll show afterwards, the way they were swarming you. It was clear that there was no one else going there, that they had never had anyone do a show for them."


Among the juggling pins, the tricycle, the sponge balls, and the jars of bubble solution in Cohen's airy artist's loft are visual reminders of his worldwide travels. These unframed black-and-white photographs hang in every room of the apartment, in which he lives alone. Next to his kitchen table, for example, there's a picture of some children he met while performing at a school in Kosovo, staring seriously into the camera. A boy in the bottom corner holds a toy gun in one hand and picks his nose with the other.

Cohen has taken hundreds of photographs over the years, and he has converted a small storage space into a darkroom. Near his desk, he keeps a portfolio of some of his favorites. Looking through them, he stops at one that he refers to as "the hands," taken after a performance at the Bhutanese refugee camp. As the bus was departing, Cohen decided he wanted to get one more picture, and stuck his head out the bus window. The 300 children who had come to see him off exploded, many of them sticking their hands up to wave goodbye. In the photo, there are dozens of palms in the air, interspersed with grinning young faces.

He took most of these photos just after Clowns Without Borders shows, and they often feature kids with twinkling eyes; they're snapshots of honest, unadulterated joy. But Cohen also takes pictures that reveal the reality of life in these places, when the clowns aren't there. There's one of a Mexican boy -- probably no older than 8 -- wearing a cap, a suit, and a red foam nose, leaning wearily against a wall. Cohen caught him "in an off moment," taking a break from the juggling act he performs for drivers at red lights to earn a few pesos.

Almost painfully, Cohen recalls performing in Nepal, and having the Bhutanese refugees ask him to take a picture of a man who had had both of his arms cut off when he was tortured in Bhutan. "They said, 'Please, take a picture of this,'" Cohen says. ""People need to see this.'" The picture is not included in the portfolio.

He thumbs through a few more photos: a grinning Bhutanese girl standing behind barbed wire, wearing a dress made from donated bolts of cloth; a group of jostling kids in Chiapas; a boy riding his bike through a bombed-out 600-year-old town in Kosovo.

"Clowns Without Borders is a very rich experience," Cohen says. "It's wonderful to create laughter in any environment, especially in an environment that so clearly appreciates it, and where it is needed. It changes your perspective in general. You pay more attention to what is going on, and you're more appreciative of what you have. We are so fortunate. It's easy to get isolated in this country in your world of wonder and not know what is going on elsewhere."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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