By Sarah Olson '26
When Naomi Shafer ’07 was a student at Northfield Mount Hermon, she studied Russian. Years after her graduation, she was invited to Beslan, Russia, where, in 2004, a school had been occupied by terrorists and laid under a deadly siege. Shafer was invited to translate for a clown who didn’t speak Russian but was performing for students for the 10th anniversary of the siege. While helping translate, Shafer saw the tension in the school that had gone through so much grief, but she also saw the hope and joy in the community. She had a moment where she thought, “What if I want to be a clown?”
At the time, Shafer was working in environmental remediation. She got in touch with Clowns Without Borders (CWB) after researching volunteer work for clowns. Today, Shafer, who studied at the San Francisco Clown Conservatory, is the executive director of Clowns Without Borders - USA.
CWB is an international organization with chapters around the world. It started in Spain, inspired by children in Barcelona who raised money to send a clown to a refugee camp in Croatia. That sparked the idea for what CWB has become today. The goal of CWB is to bring laughter to places in crisis. It works worldwide, traveling to refugee camps and other communities that have been displaced due to conflicts and natural disasters.
“In refugee camps that are following a traumatic event, people aren't thinking, ‘Have I played with my kid today?’” Shafer says. “Refugee camps and humanitarian aid are not set up to be a child-focused process.”
That’s where Clowns Without Borders comes in. The nonprofit does about 10 to 12 tours a year, sometimes with multiple tours in the same country. Usually, they start by showing up to communities and playing music, juggling, and walking around. Shafer says, “It's really wonderful to see how quick kids are to be like, ‘Oh, yes, this is for me.’ Then parents come, and a lot of times, I think, parents or caregivers are surprised by how much they enjoy it.” Having fun and watching their kids laugh brings some relief and joy to parents and caregivers.
At one refugee camp that CWB visited in Iraqi Kurdistan, some children were the second or third generations of displaced families. Shafer says there was a sense of hopelessness in the community. When the clowns started doing their show, a car backfired, and the audience dropped to the ground. There had been a bombing in the camp a few years ago, and it took a moment for everyone to realize that the noise was just a car and that everyone was okay. At the end of the show, a child stepped forward and started to sing. Soon, the entire audience was singing and dancing a traditional Kurdish dance. Shafer says that when CWB performs, “there's this moment where it shifts, and it stops being about us, the performers, and it goes back to the audience.”
Her work, she says, is informed by her experience at Northfield Mount Hermon, where she made mistakes, asked for help, and learned from them. She still makes mistakes every day, she says; on a tour, she might say something wrong in a foreign language, but she keeps learning and trying to create connections with others. Shafer says she remembers starting at NMH and feeling so lost. A new environment with new people can feel overwhelming. She is incredibly grateful and appreciative for people who reached out and connected with her. It is easy to focus on what you need and want, she says, but moments of kindness and connections make a difference. People in refugee camps and communities in crises can also feel lost, and so Shafer’s job is to reach out a hand and make them laugh.
There has been a lot of hurt in the world, and, Shafer says, “I think it's really easy to start to tune out or to feel like you can’t read or listen to the news anymore.” Yes, refugee camps and displacement are serious topics that can be difficult to engage with, she says, but the people in these places are also just families and kids. People are still going through human experiences in these communities, like falling in love, losing someone, learning how to walk, and learning how to share. It does not take a big leap to have that empathy and connect with these communities.
And, of course, everyone needs to laugh sometimes. “You know, laughter is not a finite resource,” Shafer says. “It does not need to be limited.”
Sarah Olson, a sophomore from Ketchum, Idaho, is a workjob student in the NMH communications and marketing office.