Coauthored by Naomi Shafer and Maggie Cunha
What does “being seen” mean to a person who is stateless?
The answer is likely the same as what it means to you.
It’s about being acknowledged, represented, supported, and included.
Would you agree?
For millions of people who are stateless, or not considered a national by any country, they don’t feel seen in these ways. And for many, it feels like the rest of the world has absolutely forgotten their existence.
In 2022, Clowns Without Borders (CWB) traveled twice to Iraqi Kurdistan, where a large portion of the population is stateless. The first trip explored a potential new partnership. The second visit included a full clown team — and lots of fun tricks up our sleeves.
In this post, we’ll talk about Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish residents we connected with, and how the audience felt seen through our high-spirited shows.
Stateless and Struggling: The Plight of the Kurdish People in Iraq
The Kurds, or the Kurdish people, are an ethnic group with a population between 30 and 45 million who straddle the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They are also the world’s largest peoples without a state, facing marginalization and persecution in their century-old fight for rights, autonomy, and independence.
Like millions of stateless people around the world, most Kurds are denied basic rights such as education in their own language, freedom of movement, and the right to vote.
Iraqi Kurdistan (also referred to as Southern Kurdistan, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and Kurdistan Region) is an autonomous region in northern Iraq where stateless Kurdish refugees and IDPs (Internally Displaced People) represent about 28% of the population (The Kurdish Project).
Faces of Hope: Our Kurdish Refugee Audience
Our audience was Kurdish refugees from Iran.
The women and children in our audience do not have the option to leave the camps and apply for a beneficial legal status in Iraq. They’re also not considered for UNHCR’s refugee resettlement process, and the UN has provided no long-term solutions.
Many families in Iranian Kurdish camps have lived there since the camp’s establishment in 1993.
The camps have suffered from conflicts and war and, in September 2018, they experienced a traumatic missile attack. Most people lost loved ones.
In September 2022, more deadly attacks occurred.
From Invitation to Inspiration: CWB’s Journey to Iraqi Kurdistan
In March, CWB arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan to learn more about the region, our partner, and to begin dialog with a potential new partner.
It all started with an invitation from Tara Azizi, an Iranian Kurdish human rights lawyer living in the United States. Tara has a history of working in international development and introduced CWB to project partners following a month spent in Iraqi Kurdistan, including refugee camps.
The children were constantly worried that a new bomb attack would hit, making it hard for the kids to focus on something else. It was hard to find a child who laughed.Tara Azizi, Human Rights Lawyer, on why she reached out to CWB
Other key parts of our March tour included goal-setting, as well as making — and performing — four shows.
At the beginning of our last show, we arrived to find the children lined up to greet us. Dressed in their finest clothing and arranged by height, they ceremoniously greeted us with a bouquet and a hand-written letter. Then each child extended their hand, said their name, and said welcome in Kurdish.
It was amazing to have had a moment of eye contact with each audience member before the show.Naomi Shafer
In June, CWB returned with a full clown team and performed at more camps throughout the region. Besides Iranian Kurds, we also performed for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Syrian Refugees.
What Was It Like to Be There?
Halfway through one show, the community leader walked onstage with a tray of water. She saw the performers sweating and wanted to offer refreshments. At another moment, when we were singing, all the children ran onstage to join us.
Both those moments were beautiful gestures of hospitality and engagement that helped us feel connected to the community.
The camp we visited has beautiful concrete homes, a small park, and a playground. The architecture feels permanent, but no one wants to live their lives out here.
There’s a deep need to go home.
Grateful and Giddy: Comments from Captivated Crowds
It is hard to describe how the invitation to play, banjo music, and giant bubbles can transform a space.
As the artists played with kids after the show, Tara Azizi spoke to adults and recorded their comments.
Thank you for coming. This was a golden day for our children.
– A parent in a refugee camp for Iranian Kurds
The children acted as if you were family because you took the time to get to know each of them.
– Community leader
When we came here, we said Inshallah [if God wills] we’ll get back to our home in Iran.
Now we say we will go back home.
– Audience member
This is the first time we have had anything like this for our children.
We didn’t know how to set up because no other NGO has come to our camp.
– Community Organizer
Even where human rights are denied for generations, being seen can have a transformative effect.
The contagious power of levity and playfulness can spread hope, ignite creativity, and offer a glimpse of a positive future.
Also, by acknowledging the struggles of people who are marginalized and excluded, and by sharing their stories, we help them feel seen and heard.
The Iraqi Kurdistan tours in March and June 2022 featured a total of 20 shows.
March team members included Tara Azizi (non-performing team member), CWB Board Member Tim Cunningham (performing team member), as well as CWB-USA’s Executive Director, Naomi Shafer (performing team member).
June performing team members included Sabine Choucair (Lebanon), Naomi Shafer, and David Tann (England). Our partner, Terres Des Hommes Italia, provided logistics.
Want to see more images from the tour? Check out the video below!