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Iraqi Refugees In Syria Learn Value Of Laughter

Iraqi refugees learn the value of laughter at UN-backed workshops

1 August 2008 - Dozens of Iraqi refugee women living in Syria are learning how to build their self-confidence, develop relaxation techniques and hone their communication skills thanks to innovative workshops organized by the United Nations refugee agency and the group Clowns Without Borders.

So far, more than 50 Iraqis have participated in workshops in Damascus, the Syrian capital, that involve theatre, humour and communications, according to a press release issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Wednesday.

The workshops, part of a UNHCR pilot project, have been conducted by three Spanish members of the international organization Clowns Without Borders and aimed at some of the most vulnerable and neediest refugees from Iraq. The group has also trained three Iraqi clowns who offer daily shows for children at the agency centres in Damascus.

Within a few weeks, UNHCR reported, results are already being noticed: many participants say the workshops have allowed them to laugh again for the first time since the war in Iraq began in 2003.

One participant said she used to come home from work each day so angry and wound up that she would ask her family to leave her in peace.

"But this course has really affected me," she said. "When I go back home after the workshop my children say, 'Wow, you have really changed, you smile at us, you play with us.' Even my young son is saying, 'Please, I want to join this course with you.' "

Some participants have been recruited as outreach workers, going house to house in the refugee areas of Damascus to seek out other women to attend the workshops or receive intervention from UNHCR staff for their problems.

More than 215,000 Iraqi refugees are registered with the agency in Syria, and about a fifth of them suffer from severe medical conditions. Many others are unregistered, often turning to prostitution or child labour to support themselves.

Cristina Aguirre, the team leader of Clowns Without Borders for the project, said many participants had told the clowns that the class is not a "normal" situation.

"Normally they are surrounded by noises, screams and people," she said. "But we want to give them the opportunity to listen to themselves, to feel themselves, in a relaxed environment. By doing this they can gain self-confidence and spread it to others around them."

ENDS

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