Clowns on the Front Lines: Inside Patch Adams' Mission of Hope

At a Syrian refugee camp, a little laughter can make a big difference

Patch Adams with Syrian refugees.
Nora Rowley
Patch Adams with Syrian refugees, fellow clowns and the 'World's Largest Underwear'
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Patch Adams has three Syrian refugees in his underwear. Allow me to explain: For the past 30 years, the 68-year-old physician-clown – famously played by Robin Williams in the 1998 film bearing his name – has spent the majority of his time as a global activist. His goals include overturning capitalism, obtaining funding for his free healthcare organization, the Gesundheit! Institute – and getting as many people as possible into The World's Largest Underwear, which he always has in tow. The size 100 "whiteys" are anything but "tighty," a fact well-known to their previous occupants, which include the vice president of Ecuador, the president of Costa Rica and a great number of fatally sick, devastatingly impoverished or violently displaced people from 71 countries around the world.

For a week in October, I was one of 20 volunteer clowns who joined Patch on a tour of Jordan's many refugee camps to perform the good doctor's signature care work, complete with clown shoes and whoopee cushions. The underwear comes out at Rabeit Na'eam, a rocky, desolate refugee camp near the Syrian border, whose inhabitants live in canvas tents bearing the logo of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and very little else. There is some disagreement among the camp's inhabitants about whether these austere conditions constitute a step up from the ethnic-sectarian factional warfare that began in Syria in March 2011 and drove them from their homes.

See Why Human Rights Groups Are Asking the World to Remember Syria's Refugee Crisis

The children of the camp wriggle and shriek with bliss as they watch the underwear march, which features a song to the tune of the Mickey Mouse Club theme: "Underwear!/Underwear!/Wherever you go, you're in your underwear!"

Patch's philosophy holds that fun is vital in healing mass traumas and creating wellness in the people who live them. "I can remember, in the Bosnian camps, a teenager telling the story of when people forced his family out of the house and then made him watch them kill them all," Patch says. "What does one do with that?" His answer is to spread love to the suffering through clowning. "Clowning is a trick to get love close," he is fond of saying. "I can hug 99 percent of people in the first second of contact, if I'm in my clown character. The clown assumes your humanity. It assumes that, whatever trauma you've had, you can still love yourself."

Neither the underwear nor the clowns bearing it are allowed to set foot in Za'atari, the sprawling mega-camp where roughly 150,000 tent-bound, resource-deprived refugees now comprise the fourth-largest city in the Kingdom of Jordan. With the clown bus parked outside, our Jordanian fixers attempt in vain to negotiate with the armed guards that oversee the camp. We make faces at a couple of kids riding a bike by the highway. It's nearly 3 p.m., and they haven't eaten yet today.

After an hour of haggling, the answer comes down from on high: The situation is too tense for our face paint and conga lines. One car full of aid workers, the authorities insist, requires the protection of 30 policemen, and none can be spared at the moment. My years of organizing and covering protests have made me reluctant to accept security forces' assessments of the volatility of the populations they oversee, but there is nothing to be gained by arguing, so we wind up clowning at Za'atari's little cousin, Rabeit Na'eam.

Some of the children in the camp look blond from a distance, but upon approach, it becomes clear that what we are seeing is dust caked into their hair, as it is on their clothing and in every line and crease of their skin. When the wind picks up, the dust gets into my eyes and teeth and sweeps up loose pieces of garbage, encircling us all in a haze that obscures everything but the nearest tents and people. All that catches the eye amidst the brown and grey are our brightly colored clowning tools: juggling pins, musical instruments, costumes and a rainbow parachute.

Whimsy is in short supply at a refugee camp. Our visits are heartbreakingly brief – but at least we are whimsical. One new initiate into the Gesundheit! tribe, the Bay Area-based artist Maja Ruznic, tells me that she believes the comic relief we supply will outlast our visit. She has never clowned before coming to Jordan, but this is not her first experience in a refugee camp: As a child, Ruznic fled with her mother from the killing in Bosnia to a camp in Austria.

Ruznic recalls medical students visiting the camp and bringing stickers, which became the basis for a long-term game among the children of the camp. In a depressing convent where the cuisine was invariably deep-fried leftovers from the hospital next door, "The stickers were what you were looking forward to." This memory has been crucial for Maja to contextualize her time in Jordan. "I was really searching for why this trip was important, and it took me going back to my own experience," she says. "Now I know for a fact, everything we do leaves marks."

The trip also leaves its marks on us, the clowns. Here, amidst the dust, scar tissue and psychological trauma, we are developing our intelligence at loving. Loving, for Patch, is the opposite of wealth-accumulation, power-acquisition and war – the endeavors toward which human beings have been devoting our intelligence for millennia. "If we don't start thinking about loving everybody and caring for everybody," he tells me, "we're in really deep shit."

To get out of the deep shit, it seems, we'd better get in the enormous underwear.