How this humanitarian clown brought joy to children and wounded soldiers in Ukraine

The Current23:46A humanitarian clown’s work in Ukraine

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Humanitarian clown Guillaume Vermette is no stranger to travelling to some of the world’s most dangerous places. For 18 years, he’s been entertaining traumatized children as Yahoo the clown across the globe, from refugee camps in the Middle East to orphanages in Russia.

But his two-week trip to Ukraine was the first time he had ever performed in an active war zone — and it was an experience that, at times, scared him.

“[Within the] first hour, I heard the air raid alarm, and … while I was there, there was even missiles attacking Lviv,” he told The Current‘s Matt Galloway.

The Trois-Rivières, Que. native spent two weeks in Lviv in August — several hundred kilometres west of the front line of the war that erupted after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. 

There, Vermette entertained kids and families — in the midst of air raid sirens and an aura of anxiety over potential attacks. He could see the toll the war had taken on Ukrainians.

“Every people I met, behind the smiles there are stories, there’s trauma,” he said. “They lost people, they lost homes.”

But his oddball presence was sometimes enough to make Ukrainians cry and hug him.

“I had so many just, like, incredible demonstrations of love and gratefulness and gifts and even, like, some ceremony and song,” he said. “People were so grateful and happy.”

A ‘weirdo’ in Lviv

Vermette had always wanted to go to Ukraine, but he was “waiting for the right opportunity” before making the journey east.

That came when the organization he founded, Philanthropic Caravan, received an invitation to go to the country.

“There’s the risk, of course, but there’s also a lot of the issues and nuance legally,” he said. “Our organization wasn’t ready yet to send somebody inside a country at war.”

Instead, Vermette decided to embark on a personal trip to Ukraine, taking fellow humanitarian clown Marie Veillette with him on Aug. 3.

A young boy walks on the rubble of his former School No. 21 in Chernihiv, Ukraine, which was bombed by Russian forces in early 2022. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

They teamed up with the Scottish-based charity Siobhan’s Trust, which was also in Ukraine to make pizza for people.

“They do pizza, we do clowning,” Vermette said. “It seems like a weird mix, but at the end it’s such a beautiful and powerful partnership and team because our goal is exactly the same.”

Vermette even performed for wounded soldiers — a first for the experienced clown.

“I remember my Ukrainian friends that don’t know much about clowning … [asked], ‘Are you really going to knock on the doors of adult soldiers? They won’t like it,'” he said.

“And [I said], ‘Trust me, I’ve been doing that for a long time.'”

Vermette said these soldiers were among the most traumatized and damaged people they had seen, with missing arms, lost friends and deteriorating mental health.

But when they saw “this weirdo knocking on the door,” they would react positively to Vermette’s performance.

“[They were] hugging me without their arms as strong as they could and crying just because I was there,” he said. “All these emotions and moments feel unreal.”

Human connections

Vermette has since stepped down from running the Philanthropic Caravan, but he remains on the team as a spokesperson and clown.

He said being a clown isn’t about face paint, acting funny or putting on a persona. It’s a physical, emotional performance that allows Vermette to connect with people in a simple but authentic way,

That’s why, despite not being able to end all wars like he dreams of, Vermette feels he was successful in Ukraine. 

“My role in Ukraine was just to bring a little bit of human connection, love, joy, solidarity,” he said. “What else can I do? That’s all I have to offer.”

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