The one thing that has struck me the strongest is the incredible strength and resilience of the human spirit. I have worked and lived among refugees throughout this crisis and although I have seen many scars and much sorrow, I have seen thousands of smiles. It amazes me to see how the children in the camps have the capacity to make the most of their situation and how they naturally stay happy throughout such a difficult situation.

Rene Cyr ::  Age 51 :: Canadian

My name is Rene Cyr (AKA Papa Razzi the Camera Clown) and I am a 51 year old Canadian researcher and script writer for documentary films who now lives full time in Greece

Why did you decide to come and volunteer with the refugee crisis?

I first started as a volunteer with the crisis when I heard about the drownings while many attempted to cross to Greece from Turkey. I come from a long family line of fishermen and also worked for the Coast Guard back home, so I knew that my skills in search and rescue would be of use in this situation. The idea of not helping never occurred to me, when I heard about the first drownings I knew I had to go. So I started coming out to the Greek islands working on coastal watch and on search and rescue boats. While I was on the islands and not doing my nautical duties on board boats I would spend time with the children in the refugee camps,. I did a lot of art classes and other projects with them to keep them amused and help them pass the long hours waiting to be transferred to Athens. When I returned home in Athens I started visiting the refugee centers and the various parks where the refugees were gathered. I began doing more art therapy classes with the children.

I have a degree in child psychology, and although I haven’t used my training in many years I found it was useful in working with the children and unfortunately there were no other psychologists available for them in the refugee camps.

Listening to their traumatic stories and seeing the horrific pictures they painted has a profound effect on me and I found myself crying all the way to the metro on the way home each night. I had no colleagues to share these experiences with and I started feeling the weight of all this very hard to carry. So I decided I needed to find a happy way to deal with this sad situation. My solution was to become a clown. It took me a few days to come up with my clown persona. In the end I chose to be a camera orientated clown because I thought that I could incorporate camera therapy as well as document the current crisis through the eyes of the children. I did not only want to entertain the children, I wanted to engage them in fun yet meaningful activities. I knew that hunger and nutrition were also an issue in most of the camps so I also began making chocolate energy balls to hand out to the children. They have raw cacao, raisins, dates, dried bananas and rolled oats, so they not only taste good but give them much needed nutrition. I made and handed out over fifty thousand energy balls in 2015 and over fifteen thousand so far this year.

What did you know about the place and the situation before arriving?

Compared to most volunteers I knew the area and situation quite well because I have lived in Greece for several years and have been visiting since i was quite young. That being said, no amount of experiences and knowledge can fully prepare you to deal with a refugee crisis, it has a way of transforming the familiar to something quite strange and surreal. Ironically I knew the waters between the Turkish coast and Samos Island quite well because when I was seventeen I lived in the port city of Kusadasi for a few months working on a Turkish fishing boat. Back then i never had any idea that thirty years later I would be pulling people out of those waters instead of fish.

Did you arrive alone or with friends?

At first I came alone, but once i reached the crisis regions I would meet other volunteers and we worked together. After getting to know several volunteers I have now traveled throughout Greece with many of them.

What reactions did you get from family and friends before coming?

My parents were initially quite worried because I was working on search and rescue boats, which is dangerous work at the best of times and even more so when you have tired, scared refugees with little boat experience and smugglers who face long jail sentences if caught. The fact that the boat crossings happen in waters between two countries who have an aggravated history only add to the potential for things to go wrong. I am over fifty years old and this kind of work is a young man’s game but there wasn’t many young men stepping onto the boats to help, so I felt compelled to keep on doing it. When the EU signed the infamous deal to send refugees back to Turkey and NATO boats moved in it became impossible to continue doing search and rescue, so i returned to Athens and began working in the refugee centers and camps. They worry less about my physical safety now that I’m not working on the boats, but now they worry about my emotional and psychological well-being because they know I work with very traumatized people under challenging situations. My sons are proud of me, both are coming to Greece this summer to work with me at various camps before returning to their studies in Canada. My adopted big brother Jim is who I share my feelings and experiences with the most. He is my biggest supporter and my counselor throughout this and all other aspects of life. My wife Evangelia is very supportive of what I do, in fact there is no way I could do what I do without her, we are very much a team. Her family admires what I do, but they feel that I should be focusing more on our own situation, like most Greek families, we are struggling economically through this current Greek financial crisis.

An influential / defining moment you had 

Defining moment on an island- I remember one afternoon in the port of Vathi on Samos Island. We had just finished bringing a group of new refugees across the island from a small bay on the south side of the island where we had helped them land their floundering vessel. Not all of them had survived the crossing and the Samos dive group had to be called in to recover the bodies of those that had drowned. After turning over the new refugees to the police for registration and asylum applications I decided to go have supper at a port side taverna before returning to our boat for our evening patrol. Generally i make myself a simple meal on the cook stove at my camp site where i spend the late part of the evenings watching for boats, but I was tired and decided to treat myself to a restaurant meal. I sat alone at a small table surrounded by tables of journalists, NGOs, Frontex staff, EU government officials and coast guard from various European countries. They were laughing and discussing various topics and it seemed more like they were all here for a conference or to cover a sporting event.

I realized that to most of these people, this was a career and these refugees were merely numbers. Then I realized that to most of the world these refugees were mostly just numbers. To the governments involved in making big decisions affecting the lives of many, people become numbers. To the average people at home that watch the television set and see the latest earthquake, the latest war, the latest famine, people become numbers. But to me and to the other volunteers who were working with these refugees, they are much more than numbers, they are our extended family. That is when I began to wonder how I could best help those at home to see the people and not the numbers.

Defining moment at Idomeni- During my last tour to the Idomeni region I found it very difficult. It was obvious that the border was not going to open and I came to the conclusion that those of us who were working with the refugees were possibly doing more harm than good by inadvertently giving hope to the refugees that they might still find a way to cross the border to make it to northern Europe. I was also getting emotionally and physically exhausted and I could see signs that I was starting to break down. I felt that I really needed to get back home to regenerate and reflect on the situation and how I could be more helpful. I was traveling with Mic Chambers, a volunteer from England who I am working on a documentary with. We had spent the morning at the EKO Gas station camp and most of the camp at Idomeni. The clown wig and outfit are hot under the blistering Greek sun and clowning with hundreds of children is challenging. We were planning to visit two smaller camps after Idomeni. I really didn’t feel like doing it, I was just too exhausted. Mic told me that if I was too tired to do two more camps it was understandable and I agreed. So I made up my mind just to return to the volunteer camp and take a well-deserved nap in my tent. But as I passed the first of the two small camps I decided that I would regret not stopping, so I pulled in, pulled on my wig and did my thing. I really enjoyed those two visits a lot and I am grateful that I decided to go the extra mile. The last thing I saw when we pulled out from the second camp was a young boy in a Superman outfit waving at us. Behind him was the abandoned gas station with a sign advertising oil. Above the station was a billboard which read “Welcome to Greece” I stopped and took a photo, that picture pretty much summarizes the situation. This war is about oil, the Greeks have welcomed these people, even during their own crisis and at the forefront of this picture are the children, who are the real heroes in this story.

What do you feel you learned?

The one thing that has struck me the strongest is the incredible strength and resilience of the human spirit. I have worked and lived among refugees throughout this crisis and although I have seen many scars and much sorrow, I have seen thousands of smiles. It amazes me to see how the children in the camps have the capacity to make the most of their situation and how they naturally stay happy throughout such a difficult situation.

Have you experienced moments of crisis or trauma?

Yes of course, more than I care to remember. But I try to focus on all the wonderful moments I have shared with these people in this very difficult chapter of their lives. We have all seen the photographs of the drowned children and I try to focus on the children who have managed to survive and continue to survive this terrible situation. Because I feel that it is important that we keep doing what we can and there is no more important idea to pass on than the message of Hope.

Do you remember anyone in particular among refugees or volunteers?

I have been involved for almost two years so I remember many many incredible people, both among the refugees and the volunteers. I have also met many others involved in this crisis, coast guard, port police, regular police, military, navy, journalists, NGO’s, Frontex staff, fishermen, smugglers as well as many average Greeks just trying to live a normal life among the chaos. The Greek people have been incredible throughout this crisis, I can think of no country that would have given so much while they themselves have so little. Many times I felt I was rubbing shoulders with the very best and the very worst of humanity on a daily basis. I can’t possibly write about all of the people who have become part of my memories, but I will mention a few.

The last boat I helped rescue held fifty five Syrian Kurds off the north eastern coast of Samos Island. There was one woman aboard that boat who had attempted the crossing twice, the first time she lost her two children. I will never forget her empty eyes when I pulled her from the boat or when i saw her the following weeks, gliding through the camp like a ghost, the dead floating among the living.

One man we pulled from that same boat had broken ribs, a broken arm and one eye blinded from unsuccessfully attempting to stop a group of Turkish soldiers from raping his eleven and seven year old daughters. For the next few weeks I would see their family huddled together in the camp and I tried to imagine what would be worse, to be a young child being raped by soldiers or a father not being able to stop it. I got to know them over the following weeks as I had the two girls in my art classes and we shared seats together on the same ferry from Samos Island to Athens. I also saw them frequently in the refugee center in Athens before they continued their journey north. We shared a strange and painful bond, even though I was involved in their rescue and taught the children art classes, my face was also a reminder of the horrendous trauma they suffered as a family. So there always remained a polite awkwardness between us no matter how we all tried to surpass it. When i traveled north I looked for them in every camp I visited between Athens and Idomeni, but never found them.

There is one little girl who is very close to my heart. She lives in a refugee center in Athens. We do not know her name, her age or what country she comes from. She was pulled out of a capsized boat. She has lost her ability to speak because of the trauma she has suffered. She smiles a lot now and looks so much healthier than when she first came into the center, but she still doesn’t speak. I have gotten her to laugh, those occasional giggles are the only sound any of us have heard from her. I think of her a lot no matter where I am, and I would gladly adopt her.

I met so many incredible volunteers, too many to mention. But one that stands out is Dana Florehag. He is a Swedish citizen but is a Kurd who was born and brought up in Iraq. I met him while I was working on a search and rescue boat on Agathonisi Island. He was working on Kos with the Swedish volunteer group Human 2 Human who had come to see the situation on Agathonisi Island one day and we immediately became close friends. Later their team came and joined me on Samos Island and Dana spent many late nights with me up on a hill with our binoculars looking across the water for refugee boats. He would tell me about his upbringing and how as a very young boy he was forced to join Saddam Hussein’s army. He deserted and ran away from the army when Saddam began wiping out Kurds.

As a seventeen year old boy he ran away and became a refugee. He made the boat crossing from Bodrum Turkey to Kos Island Greece. Thirteen years later, the father of two beautiful daughters now lives in Sweden. But not forgetting his experience, he comes to Greece often to work the same waters he crossed as a refugee himself. He has boundless patience, energy, patience and empathy. He is not only compassionate but practical, he has learned first aid and CPR as well as several languages. His skills have made a big difference on the front lines of this crisis. One night while we were in the lower refugee camp in Samos a older male refugee had a heart attack and would have probably died if Dana had not quickly responded. He and his Swedish team Human 2 Human have all become very good friends of mine and have come and stayed at my home in Athens. They will all come and help me with my new outreach project servicing the refugees’ camps next fall.

What are you taking back home?

Well besides Pink eye and some respiratory infections, a lot of knowledge about the situation. I have been involved in many capacities since this crisis started, besides working on the islands I have visited over thirty camps and refugee centers on mainland Greece. So I have gathered a lot of information and a good overall understanding about what is actually happening throughout this refugee crisis. I hope to put that knowledge to use through lectures, exhibitions and a documentary we are currently working on to help people in the western countries aware of what is really happening in this current crisis. There has been a lot of misinformation through the mainstream media and I feel it is important that more honest reports reach the citizens of the free world. I also like to think that this situation has shown me even more deeply how we are all connected, all part of the same family.