DAMASCUS – What does it take to make a child smile? Just a red nose.
At the main United Nations Refugee (UNHCR) registration centre in Damascus, – where whole families are queuing up for interviews – three clowns juggle and make animals from balloons. Kids laugh and jump and play. For just a moment, they are back to being what they were and what they should always be – just children. And the smiles come back to their faces.
The UN agency, supported by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) first learned about the positive benefits of clowns when a troupe was hired on World Refugee Day, on 20th June, 2007. Since then, the clowns help kids through the long and tense registration process, during which families have to wait long hours before going through their painful memories and recounting why they left Iraq. “One in every five refugees that register with UNHCR is a victim of violence and torture back home” explains Sybella Wilkes, the regional information officer. “Many children witnessed violence or even personally experienced violence. The clowns give them a rare opportunity to laugh and to relax while going through the registration process”.
The three Iraqi clowns perform daily at the registration centre, and then spend a couple of hours supporting UNICEF and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent colleagues who staff the “child friendly space” at the centre. Several times a week, they also perform at community centers, offering a rare diversion for many refugee families and passing on specific messages such as the importance of schooling. Animators of psychosocial projects and aid workers report that many Iraqi children are heavily traumatized by what they endured prior to their arrival to Syria. They are also suffering from the consequences of their displacement. And the symptoms? Children are afraid of being touched; they do not look interlocutors in the eyes; and they never want to be left alone. They show signs of aggression and hyper-activity. They suffer from bed-wetting and nightmares. Specific support projects are and will be implemented to confront these issues.
None of the children will be healed by the UNHCR clowns but any moment is a good moment to recover a smile. And a red nose is all that it takes.
ECHO Regional Information Officer – Amman