Taking Refuge

Exclusive Interview

with Reilly Dowd, Director and Producer of the Language of Laughter

The Language of Laughter is a documentary film that tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two women: Hanadi, a Syrian refugee living in the Zaatari camp in Jordan, and Timea, a European volunteer who dresses up as a clown named Fulla to bring laughter to the children of Zaatari. Read more about the film and support its fundraising campaign here (they have two days left to raise $6,660!)

July 17, 2016


What inspired you to create the Language of Laughter? What drew you to Hanadi and Timea in particular?

Honestly, at first, I was more afraid of the clowns than anything I might see in that refugee camp. I initially joined the Red Noses International "Emergency Smile" team in October 2014 when they were in Jordan on an exploratory trip to see if they could create a lasting program there. That's when I met Timea.

I wasn't immediately sure that she would be the focus of my film. But one day, we were visiting a refugee host community outside of Amman and I remember this boy walking into the room where the clowns were about to perform. He must've been 12, but he looked like he could be 50. It was obvious that he’d seen the horrors of war. Suddenly, Timea went up to him, and he started to laugh. It was only for a few moments, but he got to be a child again. Then, just moments later, he started to cry. I realized what a gateway laughter is to so much emotion people are forced to suppress, especially children of war. I remember thinking in that moment, "wow, there's something powerful about this whole clowning thing." She was able to break down barriers that can't be broken by language alone.

I was drawn to Hanadi, as a character, for the complete opposite reason. All her walls were seemingly up. She did not want to laugh and she made it clear that war had robbed her of her happiness. Her husband was abducted. She was forced to drop out of Damascus University. Her father passed away. And raising three young girls alone in a refugee camp, all she wanted was for them to have a chance at a future.

I was 25 when I started this project. Both these women are my age. I was inspired to tell this story because I think the world needs a story where two people from completely different walks of life come to understand each other. But more importantly, if people come to know Hanadi like I have over the course of the last two years, then the refugee crisis will become less of a statistic and more of a personal story that we can relate to. That is the kind of thing that inspires action.

How would you describe the Zaatari camp? What were your initial impressions from your first visit? How have those impressions changed over time?

During my first visit to the camp, there was an extremely rare snowstorm. Everything was the same color. Honestly, the only word that comes to mind is misery. But over the course of several weeks filming in the camp during our initial visit, I came to see a different side of life in Zaatari. People there are going about their daily lives. There's a market. Almost everyone has cell phones. It's a functioning city. The thing I found most striking was just to see so many thousands of people sitting around waiting - waiting for the war to end, waiting for a place to call home.

Many refugees came from Syria thinking it would be a matter of months before they could return back home. But several of those who we met were there celebrating third and fourth birthdays of children who came as infants.

Hanadi says the first and final goal is to return to Syria. Do you think this is possible? What steps can the U.S. government and international institutions take to help make Hanadi's dream a reality?

Just about everyone wants to return to Syria. That's their home. When I went back to Zaatari to film additional scenes in July 2015, there were hundreds of refugees getting on buses to go back to Syria. They have to go through UNHCR and the Jordanian military, but refugees who want to return to Syria do have that option. And as I've learned, this is a risk many of them are now willing to take.

Hanadi's dream is more than just being home in Syria. She wants to live in peace and she wants her three young daughters to get an education. She wants them to have opportunity. As for how her story turns out...stay tuned...

There's a lot that the U.S. government and international institutions can do to help Syrian refugees. On September 19, there will be a UN General Assembly meeting, and on the following day, President Obama will be hosting a summit focused on refugees. I look forward to seeing what comes from these high-level meetings. We are now 5 years into Syria's civil war, and more than half of the country has been displaced. In order for there to be peace, there must be a dramatic political shift - one that is bolstered by lasting policy changes at the international level.

How can we -- as Americans well-removed from the crisis -- do our part to help refugees?

I think your question says a lot about the problem itself. Many Americans are, indeed, well removed from the crisis. We now look back on Rwanda, which was only a little over 20 years ago, and think how could we have let this happen? All Americans have the ability to get information on what's happening in Syria - they also have the right to put pressure on their representatives in Washington. This is a humanitarian crisis - one that is now on a global scale. I think much of the world is looking to the U.S. for leadership on the crisis.

There is a lot of legitimate fear out there about terrorism, especially here at home in America. But many people are quick to associate refugees with terrorism. Something I think people really don't understand is that if somebody truly wanted to carry out an attack in the United States, the chances of them coming in as a refugee are so small. First, they would have to be a registered refugee in a UNHCR camp outside of Syria. At a minimum, the process takes two years - and the people who make it to the final round are more vetted than almost anyone else. I think our country needs to take a harder look at those who we are denying entry to. The vast majority of them are running from the very thing that we fear.

I think it's often hard for many Americans to grasp what is happening, especially when you hear numbers like 5 million Syrian refugees. We can help refugees by humanizing them. I hope this film will do just that.


Hanadi with her children.

Hanadi and Fulla standing together on top of a caravan.

Director and Producer Reilly Dowd with children from the Zaatari camp.

A view of Zaatari.