Clowning around in northern Iraq
Heads turn as 10 clowns get off the bus outside Nanakli Hospital for cancer patients in Erbil — a riot of neon tutus and bright red noses.
“Hello, clowns! Clowns? Clooowwwwwnnnnssss! Can we take a selfie?” People stop them before they even get through the front door. Children stare at them, agog.
Once inside, they are greeted by Dr. Sami, Director of Nanakli Hospital. “The children here today are from across Iraq,” he says. “We have children from Mosul, children from Erbil. Nobody who comes here is denied treatment. It doesn’t matter if they have money or not. The clowns are very welcome here. Some of these children are very, very sick so it’s good for them to have something to smile about.”
Rather than raucous playtime, the clowns engage with children one-on-one, blowing bubbles, making balloon animals and putting stickers on everyone and everything in reach.
12 year old Omar is being treated for cancer. “Look at him,” Omar’s father Akram says, his mouth set into grim lines. He points to the IVs attached to Omar’s hip. “It’s not good. Really not good. He’s just so ill.”
Obviously frail, Omar lights up under the attention of two of the clowns who make him a balloon sword. Akram’s face eases a bit as he sees Omar grinning at the clowns, his discomfort momentarily overcome by the opportunity for some fun. By the time the clowns move on, his bed is littered with balloons, stickers, confetti, and a red nose. Even Akram has a sticker on his shirt and the ghost of a smile.
The clowns manage to communicate with the parents and children through gestures, smiles and a genuine human connection. No translation needed for compassion.
Clowns4Care, a Danish humanitarian clowning group, came to Erbil in late September to visit children in the hospital, and those who were affected by conflict and who are now living in camps for displaced people.
Engineers, insurance agents and social workers by day, the clowns fund themselves to volunteer across the world visiting children in places such as the West Bank, Mongolia, and the camps for migrants and refugees in Greece. Their approach to clowning meshes with UNICEF’s approach to alleviating mental strain through fun and recreation.
In addition to Nanakli hospital, the clowns visited Dibaga, Hasansham, Baharka and Kawergosk camps which house displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees around the northern Iraqi city of Erbil.
The concept of clowns is a first for some of the children we visited. The children started curious but a bit hesitant to get involved.“At first, we were a little afraid. But now we’re having so much fun,” said 8 year old Abdullah in Kawergosk.
It didn’t take long for the kids to jump into the fun. And soon noise levels had increased, and children came tumbling out of the tents and portable classrooms with balloon animals and red noses. The clowns had the children playing football, dancing, pinning the tail on the elephant.
“It was important to have the clowns visit as many of the child friendly spaces as possible so the maximum number of children are reached. It’s great for them to have something that breaks up the tedium of their day to day routine,” said Anja Schmidt, project manager of UNICEF partner Terre des Hommes’s (TDH) child protection program in Dibaga camp.
Over the course of their stay in Iraq, the clowns visited ten child friendly spaces in four camps and two hospitals and interacted with hundreds of children.
“The thing that makes me most happy is seeing kids just bounce around, and they’re smiling and happy and just enjoying the fact that someone is there playing with them. The Iraqis and people we’ve met here have been phenomenally welcoming. There are definitely needs and issues in the country, but there is a difference to be made here,” said Susanne Marstrand, a clown with short hair and an outsized personality. She has traveled extensively with Clowns4Care.
In another camp, four of the lady clowns spent a few hours with some of the older adolescent girls who are learning vocational skills such as hair dressing at a child friendly space.
The girls started out fully covered, scarves pulled up over their faces. As the clowns started engaging with them, the scarves came down and the shy smiles and giggles got visibly bolder.
“Where are they from?” 16 year old Amira asked me. When I tell her Denmark, she says, “Denmark! Oh, that’s so far! Why did they come?” “We came for you,” Susanne answered. Amira thinks for a second. “We are from Sinjar. It’s very far. But not as far as Denmark!”
In the back corner, 24 year old Reema holds her month and a half old daughter. Even the baby did not escape getting a red nose — the littlest clown in the camp.
Jennifer Sparks is a communications consultant with UNICEF Iraq.