The Language of Laughter
by Reilly Dowd
This is a story about the language—and power—of laughter. In a refugee camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border, an unlikely friendship is formed between two young women—Timea, a European clown on a mission to spread joy, and Hanadi, a Syrian refugee convinced that war has robbed her of laughter.
About The Project
Two years ago, I was given the unique opportunity to follow a clown troupe from Red Noses International on their first mission to Jordan. I went with them into Zaatari Refugee Camp with only a vague idea that I wanted to tell a positive story about the transformative power of laughter. I had no idea where this quest would take me, but my central question was this: Can there be happiness—or hope—for those who much of the world has forgotten? And are clowns just a momentary distraction, or can they open doors to something more meaningful—maybe even lasting?
I was the most skeptical of all. But I know, that by nature, laughter has no borders. It is the shortest distance between two people. As silly as it might sound, it leads to both understanding and compassion. These are the two things much of the world needs in order to tackle our growing, and global, refugee crisis.
Here is our story: Amidst the collateral damage of Syria’s bloody war, The Language of Laughter documents a transformative friendship between two young women from completely different walks of life. Their story begins in January 2015 inside Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp, a sprawling tent city situated just a few miles from the Syrian border. It’s Ground Zero for what the United Nations now deems the world’s most “dramatic humanitarian crisis.”
When we first meet Hanadi, 26, she’s just one of more than 100,000 refugees who call Zaatari home. The film begins with a harrowing account of her escape from Syria. Hanadi lost everything—her education, her home, and she’s convinced, her happiness. Her father passed away when they arrived in the camp, and her mother returned to Syria shortly thereafter. With her husband missing, she’s raising three girls alone—worried they will never have a home or a chance.
We meet Timea, 27, in a very different place—her gritty and bitter cold hometown of Komarno, Slovakia. She calls herself a “clown doctor,” one of eight hospital clowns handpicked by Vienna-based NGO Red Noses International to embark on the first “Emergency Smile” mission in the Middle East—spreading laughter to Syrian refugees. Timea begins her journey convinced that happiness is a decision and that laughter can heal all wounds, even those of war. For her, clowning presents the opportunity to live in the present moment—a state of pure joy.
Timea meets Hanadi and her three daughters after one of the first clown shows in the camp. Hanadi works as a volunteer looking after children in the Mercy Corps youth area, the same place where the clowns were set to perform a series of shows. Hanadi is immediately dismissive of the clowns, convinced they are just another group of foreign do-gooders passing through.
As the clown troupe returns to Zaatari day after day, Timea becomes increasingly curious about Hanadi, and camp life beyond the view from the car or stage.
Hanadi watches the clowns in a daze. She’s seen this act before. But Fulla, Timea’s clown character, manages to break through to Hanadi’s youngest daughter in a way that Hanadi can’t. Terrorized by war, 4-year-old Bissan becomes a child again, if only for a few minutes. Hanadi soon invites Timea into her world in the camp—meals, prayer, walks, food shopping and an emotional mix of laughter and tears.
Timea begins to unlock the woman who, at first, appeared hardened and unwilling to smile. As her story unravels, Hanadi becomes our gateway to understanding the human toll of the refugee crisis. At a time when much of the world has great fear and apprehension towards refugees, Hanadi soon gives us the side of the story we rarely see.
Timea is struck by the unequivocal love Hanadi expresses for her daughters, despite the harsh circumstances and seemingly unlivable surroundings. It’s a kind of motherly love Timea had never experienced. Seeing this, Timea decides she is no longer there to “save” people. She begins to share with Hanadi her own secrets—and an “inner war zone” that reveals why she is so driven to heal the pain of others.
As Timea returns to Slovakia, she questions her own understanding of happiness as her commitment to changing the world through laughter shifts. Hanadi is left yearning to reconnect with her family.
Six months later, we return to Jordan to capture a dramatic turn of events. Hanadi, in search of her missing husband—her place—and her purpose, makes a desperate decision to return home. Within weeks, violence erupts. She is trapped. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing to Europe.
Both in search of a sense of belonging—and purpose—Hanadi and Timea’s human story prove there is hope amidst even the most challenging of circumstances.
You might be wondering, why is this story IMPORTANT?
There are more refugees in the world today than ever previously recorded—and more than half are children. The numbers continue to grow. Now 5 years into Syria’s civil war, nearly 12 million people have been displaced—and there is no peaceful outcome in sight.
It is the personal stories that put a human face on the statistics, and open the door for a broader conversation about a reality much of the world has tuned out. This urgent global challenge—the millions of refugees and the risk of another lost generation—deserves attention, and exploring it through a unique lens hopefully brings deeper understanding of both the problem—and the potential.
Ultimately, as Timea and Hanadi’s friendship strengthens over the course of nearly two years of filming, both women learn from each other—and shift their perspectives. This is what our world needs—an ability to see another point of view, and a willingness to change course. It’s a certain kind of openness that leads to tolerance.
Amidst the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time, this is a story about the quest for happiness, the yearning for home, and the triumph of hope. Our film is one that transcends both borders and politics. It’s about humanity.
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