Laughter, antics help refugee kids rediscover childhood

Clowns bring much needed fun to youngsters driven from their homes by the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

A performer with Clowns Without Borders entertains children at Kawergosk Refugee Camp, in Iraq's norther Kurdistan region.  © UNHCR/M. Prendergast

ERBIL, Iraq, Dec 30 (UNHCR) - A sense of excitement spread through the market area as dozens of children ran from their tents to find out where the music and laughter was coming from. It was a break from routine - the clowns were in town!

The curious youngsters arrived to discover two wacky characters singing and dancing their way through the dirt streets of Kawergosk refugee camp, in the northern Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

As they reached the children's play area, they were joined by a third member of the troupe from the international non-profit Clowns Without Borders, or CWB, who had been entertaining the already assembled crowd with his juggling skills.

"Our job is the same in every place - laughter and happiness are universal," said Antonio Gonzalez, a clown taking part in his fifth tour for CWB, whose slogan is "children being children again."

The organization brings much-needed fun to people, especially children, in areas of crisis around the world, including refugee camps, conflict zones and other areas hit by miseries, such as hurricanes. Gonzalez, a veteran entertainer from Spain, said he was still amazed by the impact of the show on youngsters, many of whom had not seen a clown before.

Performers with Clowns Without Borders get children involved in a show at Kawergosk Refugee Camp.   © UNHCR/M. Prendergast

"Even though I have had many experiences in different countries, I get emotional every time," he said.

The growing crowd of Syrian refugees gasped, laughed and applauded during a 45-minute show packed with magic tricks, acrobatics, music, dance, slapstick humour and, of course, plenty of opportunities to allow the children to get involved in the fun.

The clowns from Payasos Sin Fronteras, the Spanish branch of CWB, were on the final stop of a tour of the region. By this point, they had performed 30 shows in 20 days, entertaining over 10,000 refugee and internally displaced children in camps and urban areas across the Duhok, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah Governorates.

Kawther, a Syrian mother of five, fled her home in Al-Qamishli three years ago. She watched the show, keeping a close eye on her son and four daughters. "Without this type of activity, the children just suffocate. Today I saw the children forget that they were in a refugee camp, even some of the adults too", she said. "It has been a long time since I have laughed like this."

Jozef Merkx, UNHCR Coordinator for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, echoed those sentiments: "The importance of inspiring creativity amongst children in these difficult circumstances and elevating them from their situations for even a short time cannot be overstated."

Many of those who attended the CWB shows during the tour were not even born when the conflict in Syria began. And, as the Syria conflict is well into its fifth year, activities which let children act and feel like ordinary children are needed more than ever.

By Michael Prendergast in Erbil, northern Iraq