GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A pair of Palestinian clowns is offering some laughs and relief to children with chronic illnesses at pediatric wards in hospitals in the Gaza Strip.
With no circus or fair in Gaza to offer employment, Majed Kaloub and Alaa Miqdad began reaching out to kids in kindergartens and schools. Now, thanks to the aid of CISS, an Italian non-profit organization, they have found a niche for their work in hospitals, bringing some much needed cheer to sick children.
Neither is formally trained in medical clowning, a profession popularized by American doctor Patch Adams and in which Israel's University of Haifa offers a bachelor's degree, but their goal is the same — to raise the spirit of young patients in an already sad part of the world.
"The clown is a supporting tool for the medical doctor," said Kaloub, 24. "As much as we can, we try to let the child respond to us to reach his heart."
For Miqdad, a 33-year-old dwarf, the experience has been far more personal. When he was younger, he said he was bullied and teased and for a long time after that, he resisted children.
"The children are all my life now. I do most of the work with them," he said.
Both started clowning in hospitals in 2014. That summer, they worked with children traumatized by incessant airstrikes during a deadly 50-war with Israel. They performed in damaged neighborhoods and temporary shelters. The experience inspired the clowns to take their act to hospitals where there were children with chronic illnesses.
Hardships remain in the Gaza Strip, an isolated coastal Palestinian territory ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas group and operating under a joint blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt. According to UNICEF, some 300,000 of its 1.8 million residents are in need of emotional and psychological support.
The clowns typically visit three medical centers a week. On a recent visit to al-Rantisi hospital, children jumped from their parents' laps to greet Miqdad, even before he put on his clown costume.
In a tiny locker room, Kaloub and Miqdad put on colorful loose outfits over their casual street clothes and applied makeup and a red clown's nose. Miqdad put on a bright Mohawk wig. They then set off giggles with dancing, magic tricks and bubble-blowing.
"They are beautiful," said Mohammed al-Baz, 11, who suffers from a disorder of the brain that can cause epileptic seizures. "They make me laugh every time I come here."
In the artificial kidney ward, some kids who were hooked up to dialysis machines nearly jumped out of their beds to grab bubbles. Mohammed Shawaf said his three-year-old daughter asks for the clowns even when she is back home from the hospital.
Yousef Al-Muqayyad, a doctor at al-Rantisi, said the clowns help the staff connect with the young patients. The clowns "break the barrier of fear of the white coat," he said. "When they would see the white (coat), the children used to scream."
It's easy to get attached to the children and the work has taken its toll on both clowns, said Kaloub, adding that they have needed psychological support.
"One of the greatest difficulties is that most of the children we see die after we cherish them," he said. "If we despair, we won't continue our work."