A happy family no more

In the first article from MENASSAT's new partner, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, Nicolien Den Boer talks to the three remaining members of the Happy Family Group, a collective of Iraqi clowns. They fled to Damascus after two group members were assassinated in Baghdad.
iraqi clowns.jpg
Rahman, Ali and Saif (insert) are all that's left of the Happy Family Group. © R.R. / Detail from: Jennifer's Clowns, 1975 (Collection of Ms. Jennifer Mulak)

DAMASCUS, Feb. 5, 2008 (RNW) - Children cling to their legs, laughing and screaming. Their parents look on, tired but visibly relieved. Iraqi families often have to wait for hours before they can register with the UN refugee organization UNHCR. The three-man clown show from Baghdad is a welcome break from the monotony of waiting.

A few months ago, Rahman, Ali and Saif came here themselves to register. After their two friends and colleagues were murdered, they fled from Baghdad.

Back in Baghdad, they called themselves the Happy Family Group. They didn't take the threats from the militias seriously, until two of their number didn't turn up for rehearsal one day. It turned out the two had been murdered making their way through the Iraqi capital.

They still do not know who exactly is behind the attack. "A terrorist group", Rahman suspects.

The reason behind it is also unclear. They weren't doing anything controversial, say the clowns. Their show at the time was called, "A child is just as sacred as a country."

Now, the three remaining group members entertain Iraqi children and their parents every day as they wait to register with UNHCR's Damascus office. The clowns give both parents and children a rare opportunity to laugh during what is a difficult experience for them; registration means retelling the family's story.

"One in every five refugees who registers with us is a victim of violence or torture", says Laurens Jolles, the Dutchman who heads the UNHCR office in the Syrian capital. "This means that the families and the children in particular, are traumatized when they get here."

The UNHCR also uses the clowns to get children back to school. Only about 70,000 of the 300,000 Iraqi children in Syria attend school. "Far too few," says Jolles.

Take eight-year-old Iraqi boy Mohammed. He has found it difficult to adjust to the Syrian dialect since he moved to the central Syrian city of Homs six months ago. Mohammed, who is visiting Damascus, has just seen the clowns and tells them he doesn't like going to school. He has hardly any friends and wants to stop going.

"He is sad at school," his mother says. "In Iraq, he lost everything, his house, his school, his friends. I make him read, but he says that he doesn't want to read here in Syria. He says he'll read when he gets back to Iraq."

"Many Iraqi children have difficulty with the Syrian dialect and the completely different teaching methods here," says Jolles.

So many of them simply stop going to school. You see them on the streets, selling roasted chestnuts, cleaning shoes or washing car windows at traffic lights. Often there is no room in the schools; the classes are overflowing and in some schools there are more Iraqi children than Syrian pupils. A whole generation of Iraqis is at risk of going through life uneducated.


The clowns at the UNHCR office continue their show. But their funny performance also contains a warning: watch out for swindlers, stay away from people trying to sell fake UNHCR registration forms...

The 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria are an easy target for petty criminals, says UNHCR official Sybella Wilkes. "It really hurts, after everything the Iraqi refugees have been through; robbery, kidnap and losing their homes, when you see them become the victims of fraud."

The show is over but the children still cling to the clowns. "The clowns are like brothers to me," says 11-year-old Firaz.

The drawings made by the children are cleared away. There are pictures of flowers and animals but also of damaged houses and, surprisingly, a devil's mask. Under the last drawing is the incomprehensible but at the same time chilling text, "A devil's mask; the teacher told us to draw a mask".

Most of the children are traumatized and incredibly scared, say Rahman, Ali and Saif . "We try to convince them that there is a different  future for them."

With the murder of their friends still fresh in their memory, the clowns are confronted every day by stories that sever the soul. But, they say, "We will carry on as long as the Iraqi children are here."

This article was republished with permission from Radio Netherlands Worldwide.