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A team of volunteers travels the world to bring joy and laughter to refugees and their families. IMAGE: Clowns Without Border

Faced with an uncertain future, refugees in camps and shelters need laughter to remind them of hope

By Mostapha Raad

They say laughter is the best medicine. It may not be a medicinal cure for those suffering from certain psychological ailments, but it alleviates the pain of those who have endured the trauma of war. To that end, laughter is as necessary as food, water and shelter.

For the large number of Syrians who fled their homeland since war erupted nearly five years ago, and have been living in conditions ripe with frustration, desperation and no semblance of normalcy, laughter offers a ray of light.

This story does not examine the hardships refugees face—whether it is defying the cruelties of war, or surviving the unforgiving nature of blizzards and the scorching summer heat alike, which have taken the lives of thousands. Instead this piece aims to restore faith in humanity, where humane interaction may be a greater requirement; sometimes even more than aid.

This is a tale about the efforts of extraordinary individuals who have decided to draw smiles on the faces of refugees worldwide, helping them, even if briefly, to forget about war.

And who better to tell part of this story than Dr. Patch Adams, a name that will resonate with those who have heard about the physician or seen the biopic starring the actor and comedian Robin Williams.

The late actor reprised the role of Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams, an American doctor, comedian, social activist, clown and author who created the Gesundheit Institute in 1971 and has since, every year, taken a group of volunteers around the world where, dressed as clowns, they bring humor to stressful lives. Now they are helping refugees.

At the age of 18, Patch, now 70, recounts how after losing his father to war he “got involved in the civil rights movements in the United States,” he told Newsweek Middle East in an exclusive interview.

The doctor and his group of volunteers have gone to war zones, refugee camps, camps for internally displaced people, as well as disaster-struck countries worldwide over the past three decades.

“We don’t do shows, we engage. We clown for everybody. Everybody needs joy, love, humor and creativity. It is a misconception that we are there for the children; I mean we are, but we are also there for the adults who often suffer much deeper,” Patch insisted in his telephone interview.

“Everyone likes to laugh and we use that trick as an opportunity to get close enough to hear horrible stories and to comfort and hold people. So if you look at the start of a clowning moment, you would see fun, after a while we just end up holding each other or crying together,” he added.

The American doctor-cum-activist, accused his country of practicing state-terrorism, adding that the U.S., alongside Russia, have been testing their “new weapons” on people, including Syrians.
“I will tell you the truth,” he said. “I think that the United States is the number one terrorist nation [worldwide]. We [Americans] do whatever we want, kill whoever we want and sell weapons to whoever wants to buy them. We are the number one arm sellers. Sometimes, I feel like [it is] Germany in 1930.”
Furthermore, he deplored referring to civilian casualties as “collateral damage” as done by the United States when describing those affected by U.S. drone strikes. He also lashed out at Republican presidential hopeful and real estate tycoon Donald Trump for suggesting that Muslims, as well as Syrian refugees, be banned from entering the U.S.
Trump called them “Trojan horses,” which terrorists would use to enter the U.S.
“What a f****** as*****, you can quote me on that. If anyone was wondering how bad it is, all they have to do is look at [Trump]. He doesn’t even care if he is elected, he just loves to be in the spotlight saying unbelievably horrible things. Every American should be embarrassed of this man,” the humanitarian said, seemingly annoyed by Trump’s verbal slurs.

The Beginning: A Painful Mass Exodus
Away from the deafening sounds of explosions, the smell of gunpowder and the vicious battles being fought at home, these refugees, mostly women and children, have been fighting for a dignified and a peaceful life in their temporary shelters. They want to be anywhere but where they are at the moment.
Older refugees still cling to hope that, one day, they will be able to return; using their last memories of their motherland, they weave dreams of a secure life. They refuse to believe that what once was, may never be and they still hope to find what they left behind, unchanged, intact.
However, their hopes cannot mute the echo of their fears: in reality, if they do return, they will likely find a mutilated country, where their past and future have nothing in common.
But what does one tell a child who is too young to remember his or her house, the back alleys and the familiarity of a homeland they either left at a tender age, or never laid eyes on?
Those born in makeshift tents across the borders create another painful twinge in the hearts of their watchful mothers, fathers, grandparents, or whomever the war spared.
The mass exodus of millions of Syrians has constituted the worst human catastrophe since the Second World War, according to the United Nations.
Based on reports by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as of December this year, Lebanon alone had welcomed over 1.83 million refugees whereas Europe had hosted over 800,000 refugees between March 2011 and November 2015, scattered across Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria and other countries.
The journey, which most refugees had to traverse was long, hard, dangerous and for the unfortunate, fatal. Rubber zodiacs, which have carried and continue to carry thousands of refugees across the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean, often capsize due to them being overweight, or being hit by high waves, causing deaths of those overboard, mainly children.
The bulk majority of these refugees who make it through to the Greek shoreline, suffer from an acute health and psychological conditions. The UNHCR estimates more than 677,000 refugees made it to the Greek islands this year.

Clowns Without Borders
In 1995, a group established in Spain, Clowns Without Borders, a non-profit foundation with volunteers, in the hope that they would bring laughter to refugees and the underprivileged. They organize trips to refugee camps and shelters, based on the request of other educational and humanitarian foundations.
In October, the group organized six entertainment shows every day that were attended by 30 to 1,000 people in the Greek island of Lesbos, which welcomed over 677,000 refugees throughout this year alone.
The group has three clowns from the United States: Luze Gaxiola, Clay Mayzing and Molly Rose-Levine, who teamed up with Lebanese clown and art therapist, Sabine Chocair, to organize acts for refugees in Lesbos.
In an interview with Newsweek Middle East, Chocair explained that, after a tour of over four refugee camps in Lesbos, she found the conditions of the people living there to be difficult.
“There is a state of panic among most refugees who are not quite aware where they have ended up after coastguards rescued them from capsized boats,” she said.
Once refugees arrive in Lesbos, they are settled in three main camps: One is set for families; one for those who’ve lost dear ones and need psychological and emotional care and the third camp is for the remainder.
“The kind of reactions we’ve seen on the faces of refugees after our clown acts are of a great value to us,” she said.
A lot of refugees, according to Chocair, approach the clowns to “thank” them for being able to make their children, as well as themselves, laugh.
Clowns Without Borders has also performed along the shores, near bus stops and by the port where refugees await their turn to board the next means of transportation that can take them to the capital, Athens.

PATCH ADAMS: Laughter is a Humane Sentiment
“In one of the refugee camps [in Jordan], there was a young Syrian boy who was shot in both legs and forced to watch three generations of his family murdered,” said Dr. Adams. “I held him up high in the air and he had a great smile on his face.”
The doctor visited Jordan in 2013 where he spent eight days playing clown for Syrian refugees traumatized by war.
“It is not laughter or clown therapy,” said Adams, adding, “if you want [to describe it], please call it a mother’s love with red nose. It is her [mother] natural gift for her children.”
Adams has been traveling to various countries bringing laughter to countless lives for many decades now and has toured 81 countries since 1985.
“In my clown costume, I can walk up to 99 percent of the people and hug them all the way. I don’t do it in Muslim countries, I don’t hug women without permission,” he said.
According to the doctor, all societies use laughter, dance and song to keep in touch with their humanitarian values.

A Week of Marital Bliss
Without any prior notice, Nada, (not her real name), enters a room filled with male Syrian refugees at one of the schools in Akkar, northern Lebanon. She asks: “Who is the coach here?” When the coach introduces himself, she profoundly thanks him and leaves the room. A Syrian man explains to the surprised coach what just happened.
As it turns out, Nada is the man’s wife. She was thanking the coach because for the first time in 25 years, the couple had spent a full week without bickering. The man said it was because he had decided to take the coach’s advice and listen more to her needs and problems.
“Success in coaching refugees to communicate in a non-violent way is [a reward],” said Tanya Awad Ghorra, a nonviolent communications specialist and coach.
“As coaches, we use laughter to break the ice with the trainees, in addition to artful improvising in handling cases which have always been a taboo to discuss,” she told Newsweek Middle East.

Shattering Stereotypes
Many Lebanese still remember the military presence of the Syrian regime which lasted for nearly three decades and ended in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Six years after the withdrawal of Syria’s military, the Lebanese were compelled to open their border with neighboring Syria to welcome a tsunami of refugees who settled in relatively impoverished Lebanese areas. This has caused continuous friction between the hosts and their guests.
However, according to Ghorra, this friction is due largely to trans-generational trauma, and this is what she hopes to eliminate, along with stereotypes between both communities, i.e. the poor Lebanese community vs. the poor Syrian community.
Ghorra attempts, via her work, to render the level of congested hatred, racism and friction that occurs between Syrians and Lebanese nationals. She encounters many Syrian refugees who complain of maltreatment by the Lebanese.
“A ‘positive trauma’ helps people speak their minds and hearts out… That is why coaches use laughter to restore the humane value to the refugee so that he or she would be able to speak of his or her suffering and get over the trauma,” she said.
“Working on finding a common ground between both societies helps them get over it and clear the air,” she added.

Reality Bites
As Lebanon’s socio-economic woes increase due to the strain of hosting such a huge number of refugees, the constraints faced by such a small country filters to the refugee community exasperating their problems.
The refugees currently face a number of problems as they attempt to make a life—and livelihood. This includes marrying off underage girls or temporary marriages, when parents receive money for marrying off their daughters, aged 15 to 18, for a limited period of time, after which the girl sometimes returns pregnant and divorced.
Problems also include registering newly born babies; being unable to attend public schools which are already full, or private schools for which the parents lack the finances, leading to an illiterate generation; health problems due to lack of hygiene at the makeshift camps and the spread of diseases. This doesn’t include the problems caused by trauma, losing loved ones and leaving home.

Coaches’ Pain
Ghorra said that coaches too are impacted by the stories they hear.
“We listen, we sympathize without expressing our opinion, as we need to help the refugee express his pain and frustration… What we hear stays in our heads and prevents us from sleeping for days,” she said.
Some coaches, she said, “are unable to get over this phase, which leads to their breakdown and even entering hospitals themselves.”

Humanity Without Borders
“I have no sense of country, I have [a] sense of humanity,” said Adams. “I like to go to the worst, suffering places and bring joy and love there. When I go and [play a] clown in a hospital I ask the staff who is suffering the most. I want to be with them. I had a wonderful mother which clearly showed me that love and caring for others is what life is about and that is why, as a John Lennon song says, I imagine no countries.”
According to Adams, Syrian refugees need a solution that guarantees an end to the ongoing violence in their motherland.
“I think that Syrians would like to stop the violence in Syria. No one likes to flee their home country, but hear anyone demanding the United States or Russia to stop doing this. It is funny that I didn’t hear a discussion about bringing peace to Syria. I think that corporations think of cheap labor,” he said.
Chocair, who entertained refugees in Europe, namely Greece, says what is happening to refugees is “inhumane and must stop. A large number of people are dying daily because of this stinking war. Our mission is to heal people’s wounds, and we always hope to reach a time where no one would need us.”

Feminizing the World
Human history has proven to be unjust to women.
“No country was ever safe to its women,” said Adams, adding: “We need to feminize the world. I have told audiences in 81 countries that I think that 85 percent of men are dangerous to women. I [have] talked to 40 million people and no one has argued that.”
Speaking on the lack of education in teaching compassion and love, Patch Adams suggested a solution for the elimination of violence.
“It might interest you that not one single public school in the world (13 years of education) teaches one hour of loving. No one teaches loving. And no school in the world teaches compassion. And none of this should surprise anybody since men are in charge,” the doctor said, passionately.
“How to make a loving world? Women would know, if everything is given to women, we will have a loving world… If we look closely, every problem in history is caused by a man and no country in history were safe to women.”

I Have a Dream
Patch Adams also dreams of helping fellow Americans back home, whom he calls victims of the capitalist system.
He explained that he uses the money he receives from lectures and workshops towards building a hospital that would treat people for free in the U.S. “because the medical system is the greediest, unhealthy system in the country.”
He explained that throughout his 45-year career, he has yet to find funding for his hospital.
“Imagine how dangerous it would be to a multi-trillion-dollar a year business, if I had a hospital, it will eliminate 90 percent of the cost. I am dangerous,” he added.
When asked about the proceeds from the Patch Adams movie, he said the movie’s custodians had promised “to build our hospital,” but they “didn’t give $10 dollars,” for it yet.

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