The United Nations refugee agency has enlisted a new ally – red-nosed clowns – to help put Iraqi children traumatized by the violence of their homeland at ease while they register for school in neighbouring Syria.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) first learnt about the positive benefits of clowns when a local troupe was hired on World Refugee Day in June to perform in the tense and unhappy waiting room at its main registration centre in Damascus, the Syrian capital, making the children more relaxed.
“We know that one in five refugees that register with UNHCR are victims of violence or torture in Iraq,” UNHCR Representative Laurens Jolles said. “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.”
Three people came forward when the agency 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. They became UNHCR’s first outreach volunteers from the Iraqi community. There are more than 1.4 million Iraqi refugees in Syria.
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, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and UNICEF staff.
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 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,” one of the clowns, Rahman Eidi, said. “We also want to teach children about the importance of school.”
The clowns perform a daily show at the UNHCR Registration Centre, then spend a couple of hours supporting the UN Children’s Fund (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.