Pictures: Till Mayer

By Till Mayer and Zach Kornell

Elena Komarova, her husband and three children arrived to Kiev three years ago. The family fled from the city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, where the sound of fighter planes and exploding artillery became the soundtrack of their days.

“I never thought that I would see such violence in my home town, people shooting at each other. This was totally crazy,” Komarova said.

Their new life in Kiev, however, is not exactly what they hoped for. More than 150,000 internally displaced people sought refuge in the capital, and for many locals, they are intruders in a city that does not want to host them.

In school, their oldest daughter Olga, 10, has been bullied. “They do not like us children from the east,” she said.

Support through laughter

But a pleasant surprise is on the way: four artists coming from the Red Noses Clowndoctors International. They are part of a three-week project working with the Ukrainian Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to deliver psychosocial support to families such as the Komarovas.

Children from eastern Ukraine are a special challenge for the clowns. They have lost their homes fleeing from violence, which has a significant influence on their behaviour. During the workshop, they must learn to cope with helplessness, anger and sadness.

The sessions take place in a cultural centre, with clowns teaching the children small tricks that promise quick success. Plastic plates spin on wood sticks, colourful pieces of fabric fly through the air.

Olga soon succeeds at making the plates spin on her own. “Bravo!” exclaims Justė Liaugaudė, one of the clowns. She comes from Lithuania, the other clowns are from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.

A small play is created from the exercises; the story is about a king who seeks his land of happiness. But where is it? “This is a fundamental question for a child who has lost their home,” said Justė.

In search of happiness

“The king will, in the end, find no land of his own. Instead, he will know that the land of happiness lies within himself. The kids invented this story themselves, isn’t it wonderful?”

The final performance is a success. Dressed in self-made costumes and guided by a king with a paper crown, the children share their story on how to find the land of happiness.

Olga wears a bright neon tulle skirt and looks like a real princess on stage. All goes according to plan. The plates do not drop, colourful tissues float in beautiful patterns as the children become master performers for a day.