Clowns help Iraqi refugee children overcome trauma

News Stories, 27 December 2007

© Payasos Sin Fronteras /Pere Masramon
Red noses and silliness bring some laughter and happiness into the lives of Iraqi refugee children in Damascus.

DAMASCUS, Syria, December 27 (UNHCR) Red noses and silliness have popped up in recent months at UNHCR centres across Damascus, bringing some laughter and happiness to young Iraqis suffering from the traumas of life as refugees.

The UN refugee agency first learnt about the positive benefits of clowns when a local troupe was hired last World Refugee Day (June 20) to perform in the tense and unhappy waiting room at the main UNHCR Registration Centre in Damascus. UNHCR clerks noted that the children were more relaxed during the registration appointment.

Three people came forward when UNHCR put out a message that it was looking for Iraqi clowns to perform a regular show at the registration centre as part of its "Back to School" campaign for young Iraqi refugees. They became UNHCR's first outreach volunteers from the Iraqi community.

UNHCR asked the independent international group, Clowns Without Borders, to review the first show, which focused on informing parents and children that all Iraqi children have the right to attend school. Clowns Without Borders returned in November to offer further training to the clowns, and welcome laughter therapy for UNHCR, Syrian Arab Red Crescent and UNICEF staff.

"We know that one in five refugees that register with UNHCR are victims of violence or torture in Iraq," said UNHCR Representative in Damascus Laurens Jolles. "This means that many families, particularly children, are traumatized when they come to us. The clowns offer a rare opportunity for parents and children to smile during the otherwise very difficult experience of registering with UNHCR."

At a community centre in Seida Zeinab, one of the main Iraqi refugee areas in Damascus, a crowd of children burst out laughing as two clowns squirted each other with water and made flowers out of balloons.

"It was beautiful," said Rodeen, a beaming smile covering her face during the show. After the show the young Iraqi girl returned to her place hiding behind her aunt's legs.

For the three Iraqi clowns, members of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Baghdad-based Happy Family Group, the main goal is to make children laugh. Their members are now spread across the region, living as refugees. One colleague was killed in Iraq.

"We're doing this to make the children happy in order to remove the fears and memories of bombs and bad days," said Rahman Eidi, one of the clowns. "We also want to teach children about the importance of school."

The clowns perform a daily show at the UNHCR Registration Centre. They then spend a couple of hours supporting UNICEF and Syrian Arab Red Crescent colleagues who staff the Child Friendly space at the centre. Several times a week they perform at community centres, offering a rare diversion for many refugee families. This also helps to bring families into the centres to learn about other services offered by UNHCR.

Clowns Without Borders leader, Christina Aguirre, spent time getting to know Iraqi children in order to help design the shows for the clowns. After one show at the Seida Zeinab Community Centre, she and the Iraqi clowns went out to meet children begging on the streets or selling goods to earn a few extra pennies for their families.

"I have to work," said 14-year-old Ali, manning a little stall full of jams. "We need the money to live." His education will have to wait, he sighed, when asked about school.

"When you see an Iraqi child in the street here, all you see are a lot of problems, and no happiness," said Aguirre. "But when we put on our red noses and play with them, they forget their problems for a little while."

By Sybella Wilkes in Damascus, Syria