World Refugee Day 2016

Being there at the camps, with the refugees
Sherouk Zakaria/Dubai

Source: Khaleej Times – June 20, 2016
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A poet once said, “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”

Dubai-resident Nawar Ismail, whose name was changed for anonymity, would agree. Her family fled to Turkey in search of a better life when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011. Others remained internally displaced in Syria.

Nawar’s case has proven common as a survey by NRS International recently showed that 1 in 4 people living in the UAE have family or friends affected by a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis.

Limited access to water and electricity obstructs communication between Nawar and her relatives.

Despite the hurdles, they still remain grateful for one thing: Survival. “They survived, and that is what matters,” she said.

The number of forcibly displaced people worldwide is approximately 60 million. One in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum.

For refugee donation, contact

> Emirates Red Crescent

> Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF)

> Share The Meal initiative by United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)


The good news is, help is coming. The NRS International study showed that 73 per cent of UAE residents contributed to an international humanitarian cause in the past year, while 80 per cent are likely to continue their support in the coming year.

Rabha Saif Alam, Expert at Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt, said the attention to refugee crisis “has significantly increased” with the number of conflicts affecting countries around the globe.

She added that a huge number of donations are from the UAE and GCC counties ranging from medicine, food, drugs to building hospitals and camps.

But the best solution, Alam pointed out, is encouraging the United Nations efforts to end conflicts that create crisis in the first place. “We can help, but we cannot solve a problem if we ignore its roots,” she said.
Volunteering tales

“I think I found my life’s passion,” said Dubai-based Deena Stevens of her volunteering experience. The 24-year-old was part of a group who worked on the Greek Island of Lesbos in December 2015. She helped at Stage 1, where they received 15 boats a day, each carrying 60-80 people.

“We never slept. Everyone got stressed and sick.”

But witnessing the death of a woman and her five-year-old child of hypothermia on a windy morning is what broke Stevens.

Volunteers blamed each other, and since Stevens was a graphic designer whose job was to raise awareness about hypothermia, she was not any different.

“I still see them in my dreams. When I walk into a cold air-conditioned building, I shiver as I remember the situation.”

As she came back to the UAE in March, Stevens took it upon herself to spread awareness through giving talks. She said helping refugees find houses instead of the horribly-conditioned tents is their ultimate need.

Currently collaborating with a camp and flying in to shoot documentaries, Stevens noted that getting involved in refugee crises is “addictive. It’s hard to break yourself away from it even when you’re overseas.”
Spread the cheer

Founders of Dubomedy comedy school Mina Liccione and her husband Ali Al Sayed echoed similar sentiments. Their volunteering project, Clowns Who Care, involves collecting needed supplies (blankets, powder milk, soccer balls, art and educational supplies for kids) and travelling to refugee camps in Syria and Jordan where they perform comedy shows and art workshops for a good cause. The couple is going again after Ramadan.

“People lived in tents made of rice bags in a small camp in Jordan,” Liccione said. “Yet, the kids could not stop playing and laughing. Their mothers served us food even when they had nothing.”

Al Sayed added that the lack of water and electricity, living under cracked ceilings that offered no protection during winter, and absence of education to kids were the hardest issues to come across.

“We have to know what they actually need. Ask the organisation you deal with about their needs before you donate,” he said.

While survival is critical in old camps in Jordan, bigger camps that fit thousands of refugees “definitely need access to educational programs,” said Liccione.

She added: “It is the most intense and unforgettable experience one can go through. You never watch the news the same way again because you saw reality.”

Speak trauma

Susan Smith, Mass Communication professor at the American University of Sharjah and cofounder of Speak Trauma, said her team is currently crowdfunding for a documentary and storytelling summer workshop at a school for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Speak Trauma involves helping refugees tell their own stories through documentaries since “talking about pain is the first step toward healing.”

“They need to speak out their own losses and tears instead of the exceptional stories portrayed in the media,” said Smith who will travel to Turkey in summer.

“Let’s reinforce the children because they are the future.”


Winter Coat Drive

Giving the gift of warmth

This winter has been brutal on refugees. Mina and Ali are collecting winter coats, blankets, hats, gloves and scarves to be delivered to the Gaza Refugee Camp in Jerash, Jordan.

Ali wrote:

A few nights ago, in NYC it was so cold that my heart rate had gone up significantly and I honestly thought I was going to collapse (I was saying the Shahada … Muslims know what I’m talking about)… I was afraid because it was late and that nobody would come to help me. It felt like my heart was failing me, I couldn’t breathe. Then I went back to my comfortable hotel with a heater and looked it up, I was scared I thought I had heart problems. I learned that this happens in severely cold temperatures. Then I thought about refugees, and the poor that have to manage a life with this. On that night, the Mayor of NY had ordered all the homeless be taken to shelters even if it was by force. We have refugees that aren’t even invited in or accepted in societies, leave alone forced into safety and shelter. So we’re doing a coat/jacket and blanket drive…. We already have 500 jackets donated by a good, good person and we have a shipping company sponsoring the shipping costs … So, if you have the opportunity and the ability, please please please jump in and help somebody’s heart beat normal.

Want to get involved? Call 050 927 3621 for details. 

winter coat drive

Gaza Camp

In December, 2015 we returned to Jordan to perform and lead circus arts workshops for the children residing in the Gaza Refugee Camp in Jerash. Truly an incredible weekend of laughter and play! We can’t wait to return in the new year.

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Joy to Syrian Refugee Camps: A weekend Comedy Tour

Joy to Syrian Refugee Camps: A weekend Comedy Tour
By Mina Liccione

On December 3, 2014 we headed back to Jordan. It was my birthday that weekend and I wanted to spend it doing what I love; making people laugh and giving back with my husband Ali. We planned a vigorous schedule to ensure we reached as many children as possible during our visit. Our mission was to bring joy and laughter to the children living in the Za’atari and Azraq camps by means of a ten show and ten workshop marathon in one weekend.

Day 1: Joy to Azraq Camp

We were picked up in Amman at 8:30 am. It took approximately one hour to get to the camp. Azraq Camp is the home to over 10,000 Syrian refugees and is split into ten sections. We were set to visit five locations that day offering one workshop and one performance at each. Our CWC Activity Days were held inside tented units that act as children’s community centers run by Mercy Corp. and Unicef.

We were greeted with open arms. The staff, and teachers, were very kind and excited to have us there. The regular staff at these areas are trained refugees living in the camp. They took part in the workshops and clapped along during the shows.

Our performance was a physical comedy show complete with classic slapstick, tap dance, body percussion, musical bells, newspaper gag, audience interaction and participation. The dialogue was in Arabic, though I threw in some English words. The movements were exaggerated, the bigger the gesture, or prat fall, the louder they laughed.

We were happily surprised to see some of the Sahab Camp kids, from our last visit, there! They have since been moved to this camp and were very excited to see us. Some even reminded us what we were wearing, and the dance moves we taught them, the last time. The kids loved the show and had A LOT of energy during the performing arts workshops. Spirits and enthusiasm remained very high throughout the day.

Day 2: Joy to Za’atri Camp

We had heard a great deal about Za’atari Camp. It has almost 100,000 residents and is the second largest city in Jordan. Yes, it’s a city! When we drove up to the camp, there was intense security checking our badges and confirming the purpose of our visit. The camp was massive and is split into twelve districts just like The Hunger Games minus the hunger games. We drove down a Main Street that had clothing shops, grocery stores, gadgets, household items, hair salons, you name it! It was very active and busy.

Upon arriving to the children’s gated area, we were taken to a large trailer where our festivities would take place. Many people warned us that the kids would be unruly and aggressive. I have to say, it was quite the opposite!

Due to the high volume, we stayed in one section the entire day. We performed all five shows and five workshops there rotating between large groups of children. As the kids waited for their turn, they entertained themselves in the playground.

The main teacher for that particular community center was a lovely Syrian woman who also lived in the Camp. Her two kids were with her. Her daughter was six years old and her son, one year old. She carried him around as she participated in the workshop all while assisting hundreds of kids despite the fact she had one arm. She was strong, bold, creative and wore a huge smile on her face. She stayed with us all day and said she looked forward to continuing the creative work started. I was very moved by her courageous spirit, playfulness and love for the kids.

Throughout the day we started to notice a few of the same kids kept sneaking in with the next group. Then at the end of the session the two girls said to us “We want to stay again.” So we told them they could be our assistants. They took this seriously. They helped us re-set our props for the next rounds, move the table and chair back to their show positions and even helped seat the kids as they entered.

For the fifth, and final show of that day, a bunch of other repeat attendees snuck in because they heard it was the last performance. At this point they knew the show by heart so we decided to include them. The show had evolved into being all about them. It was beautiful and we could tell that it meant so much to them to be able to be on stage with us. My husband and I are both good improvisers and throughout the last show kept finding new moments to include different kids and see where the comedy took us. It was magical, in the moment, organic, hilarious and can never be repeated again.

After packing up our equipment, we quickly realized we weren’t ready to leave just yet. So, we headed to the playground to clown around with the kids. They also gave us a tour of the community area which included an arts and crafts trailer for the girls and an activity trailer for the boys. There was also a football field that they were very proud of. I’m not sure who had more fun kicking the ball, the boys or Ali?

Saying farewell was the most difficult part of the trip. They all wanted hugs and photos with their tiny peace signing fingers held high in the air. They would pose until you snapped the shot then run over to see how it looked.

We left with very full hearts. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a kid, is simply let them be a kid and join in the fun! Let them play, laugh, jump, cheer, dance, run, clap and of course, be silly! As we drove away all we could think about was “When can we come back? Let’s plan our next visit…”

The entire tour was humbling and heartwarming. It was an honor to be able to bring some joy to these camps and to be welcomed so graciously. Ali and I will cherish each moment and can’t wait to return in January, inshAllah.

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Moving pictures, dancing memories

We were excited to receive a special video created by our volunteers, Omar Al Gurg. The video consists of a series of images, clips, memories and smiles from our visit to the Sahab Syrian Refugee Camp.

Take a peak, get inspired then get involved 🙂 There are MILLIONS of displaced Syrian refugees who need our help, support and love. You can make a difference! 


Operation: Joy to Sahab

Operation: Joy to Sahab

Dates: June 19-23
Location: Sahab, Jordan
Clowns Who Care Team: Ali, Sol, Omar, Mai, Hasna, Zayd, Piia, Sara and Mina.
Ground team: Headed by Catherine, Elyssa and Majed.
Amman Volunteers: Olive, Susan, Ollie and others.

Sahab Reflections
By Mina Liccione

My husband, Ali Al Sayed, and I have been wanting to do some work in the Syrian Refugee camps for a while now but the timings never seemed to work out. This year we decided we MUST make it happen. We couldn’t sit back and not help these kids. As comedians, it’s our JOB to bring laughter to the masses…especially those in need. We blocked out calendar days for our mission and no matter what other events came up we politely declined. We decided to name the project “Operation: Joy to Sahab” because it expressed our objective transparently. Our intentions were simple, to bring joy, love, art, hope and support to the families residing in the Sahab Syrian Refugee Camp.

We were told that the camp was a tented community 60 miles north of Amman acting as a home to an estimated 300 Syrian refugee families. Initially we were informed that there were approximately 150 kids but in a few weeks’ time the number jumped to 270+. We were surprised to learn how quickly the number of refugees was growing on a daily basis.

The week prior to our departure was spent finalizing details, redesigning the program to fit the larger number of kids, meeting with our team of volunteers and dividing items for packing. Al Gurg Stationary was generous enough to donate all the art supplies. From markers and pencils to sketch pads and colored paper to glue sticks… and everything in between. We are very grateful for their kindness and support.

In addition, as individuals, we collected monies from friends and family in order to be able to buy much needed supplies for the camp. Our goal was to be able to provide a supply of dates, per family, for the duration of the Holy month of Ramadan as well as distribute fresh fruit, juice and snacks to all of the kids on both activity days. Upon asking Catherine (from the NGO we were in contact with) what else the camp needed, she informed us that baby formula, diapers, vitamin fortified powder milk were at the top of the list. That, in turn, became our focus. One of our volunteers, Mai, was very active in helping find resources in Jordan including a company who agreed to offer baby supplies at cost.

On Thursday, June 19th  our team of 6 adults and 4 youth flew to Amman, Jordan. The first two days were spent shopping for supplies, organizing materials, creating recycled instruments, rehearsing and preparing for our activity days on-site. Then the big day came. It was time to head to the Sahab Camp!

The following morning we packed up three SUV’s and hit the road. A little over an hour later we arrived to the site. The camp was not in good condition. There were some tents made out of old rice bags sewn together and others using trash bags as windows. There was garbage everywhere. You could see the heat rising from the sand. Then a little head appeared. A young boy peaking from behind a thick sheet that was being used as a doorway. He slowly walked outside staring at us as our SUV drove in. I remember wondering if he was going to smile. I waved, and he waved back…. But no smile just yet.

Then we parked the cars and slowly got out. Within moments there were kids walking towards us. Waving. Smiling. Wanting to hold our hands. Their hair was dirty and their little faces were tanned from the sun. Almost cracking. Their eyes penetrated deep as if they could see right through us. They were happy we were there. They knew we were coming. They were curious to see who we were just as we were to meet them. A minute later smiles appeared like a beautiful sunrise. The clapping and cheering was contagious. We knew it was going to be a great day.

Day 1 was scheduled for the girls. Day 2 was scheduled for the boys. Each day we split the kids into groups based upon their ages and had them rotate between creative activities.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Ali and I led the performing arts tent. We danced, played theater games, taught them clown routines, make music out of recycled instruments, sang and of course, LAUGHED! We were thrilled to see how much the kids, girls and boys, loved the workshops. After each game or exercise they would shout “Again! Again!” The beauty of performing arts is that it’s physical which allows them to release stress, relieve anxiety and pent up energy. In addition, it allowed them to just PLAY and be kids! They didn’t want the session to end, nor did our additional volunteers who assisted and joined in.

The Art Tent was led by our dear friend and colleague, Sol. She designed a lesson plan that included three art projects per workshop. Projects included decorating hearts for someone they love, making jewelry and masks out of pipe cleaners, drawings and much more. Additional team members and ground volunteers aided to ensure the kids got more personal attention.

Another important factor was getting to meet the teachers. Two of the regular camp teachers attended all of our workshops. They were able to learn new teaching techniques to hopefully be able to apply to their lessons. The male teacher asked many questions and was very inspired by the lessons. We were happy to be able to leave all the left over art supplies and instruments with them so that they can continue the work started.

We also met a gentleman who lived in the tent right next door to the school we were leading performing arts in. He enjoyed watching all of the classes over the two days we were there. He would come into the tent between classes and bring us a pot of tea. He had such little and yet he insisted he show us hospitality. He had a young baby girl, about one year old. Mashallah she was gorgeous. She smiled, clapped along to the music and desperately wanted to stand on her own two feet. Her father told us that she is the only daughter, of three, who survived. He also told us that she is small for her age because his wife isn’t able to breast feed her. Our hearts grew heavy as we tried not to cry. Her name was Amal, which means ‘hope.’

After the daily workshops were complete we then handed out the food. Handing out food in an organized manner was quite challenging but the ground team has a system in place that we abided by. It could’ve easily became extremely chaotic but we managed to keep the cues in order as if it were an assembly line. Every kid received a banana, juice box and chocolate pie. We were particularly conscious of making sure we gave the kids fresh fruit because that is not something they receive very often as most of their food is dry supplies.

We were all emotional after that first day but also MOTIVATED. Our lessons for the boys were different from the girls so we made sure to take time to switch gears and prepare for our second day. I have to say, the girls had just as much energy as the boys did. Both groups were as aggressive as the other as well. On the flip side, both groups were also very tentative when needed to be and equally loved the creative workshops.

It was extremely difficult to pack up and leave. Ali and I decided after day 1 that we wanted to build a bridge program that allowed us to return on a more regular basis. Not only do we want to keep the arts education growing for the children but we also want to help train their teachers and potentially offer classes for the Moms as well.

On behalf of our entire team, I say that it was truly an honor to get to work with these children and meet these brave men and women. We were deeply moved and will continue to help improve the well being of Syrian refugees. To learn more about how YOU can get involved please visit Mercy Corps’ website:

Images by Omar Al Gurg







This photo is by: Zayd Lahham

This photo is by: Zayd Lahham