Israeli clowns lighten the burden of the Ukrainian refugees | IJN

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Ariel Keren, a social worker and actor who lives near Jerusalem, has brought his smile-inducing skills as a trained clown to “thousands” of children and countless adults throughout Israel in the last eight years.

A happy moment of connection between Israeli clown Ariel Keren and Misha, a Ukrainian boy in Moldova.

And recently he faced Misha.

Misha is a 12-year-old Jewish native of Ukraine. Evacuated from Kiev during an early week of the war begun by Russia, he ended up one day, along with hundreds of refugees, in a processing center in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova.

Keren is a member of Israel’s Dream Doctors organization — which trains empathetic men and women to work as “clown doctors” to brighten the spirits of ill people, mostly children, in 34 hospitals — signed up to go to Moldova. With the number of refugees ballooning, the need for such clowns became apparent.

Moldova’s chief rabbi had requested them, “to cheer people up.”

Keren and two other Israeli clowns spent a week in Moldova, typically working from early morning to late evening. Dream Doctors has sent several other delegations of clowns to Moldova and Poland.

When Keren, garbed in a clown’s oversized trousers and floppy shoes, a fake foam nose perched on his real nose, stood before Misha, the kid was somber. “It was closed. He didn’t want to play with us.”

Misha was outfitted in sweat pants and a sweatshirt — the meager clothing he was able to grab when he had to leave his home in a hurry. He had left most of his possessions, and his life, behind.

Like most refugees, Misha didn’t smile.

Keren’s goal was to make Misha smile, probably for the first time in weeks. To make him less frightened.

Keren encountered a language barrier.

“I don’t know a word in Russian or Ukrainian,” he says.

Misha’s knowledge of Hebrew or English?

“Nothing.”

How did Keren communicate with Misha?

“The language of a clown” — a smile, a hug, an unspoken connection of concern, he says.

Keren — a master of magic and mime, of making balloon animals and animal sounds, of walking on stilts and banging with rubber hammers — tried some of his shtick.

That’s how clowns work.

Misha didn’t smile.

Finally, Misha’s mother informed Keren and a fellow clown — a native of Ukraine who speaks Ukrainian — that Misha was a champion age-group boxer back in his hometown.

So Keren, whose clown name is “Slinky” (his clowning compatriots were Buzz and Shemesh) had an idea.

When he had traveled from Israel a few days earlier, he had packed a bunch of fake, cheap medals on ribbons — which he had bought for just such an occasion.

With the Ukrainian-born clown translating, Keren and his partner staged an elaborate, impromptu awards ceremony. “A big ceremony” for Misha, Keren says. “We gave him a medal. We put it on his neck.”

Misha “gradually opened up,” Keren says.

He smiled.

The ersatz medal reminded Misha of better times; it gave him hope that he might compete, successfully, again. Somewhere.

Misha is among an estimated million-plus Ukrainian children and teens who have flooded into Moldova, Poland and other nearby countries with their families since Russia’s war against Ukraine began in late February.

While thousands of volunteers have traveled to bring such necessities as food and medical supplies to the refugees in the last two months, Keren is among a few dozen Israeli-trained clowns who have come to bring optimism, to lift the spirits of the refugees.

“I’m an actor. I love kids,” Keren, 39, says of his reason for volunteering to literally clown around for the week in Moldova, giving up “a ton” of well-paying assignments back in Israel.

He is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, about whom, after the war, Keren says, “nobody cared about his mental health.”

Caring about people’s mental health — “that’s what a clown does,” Keren told the IJN. “He cares about feelings.” It’s more than empty shtick. “He speaks the universal language of feeling.”

Which is why, Keren says, he became a clown doctor, training for a year, and why he joined Dream Doctors (dreamdoctors.org.il), which dispatches clowns — trained mental health therapists in funny costumes — to hospitals around the country.

And why he went to Moldova.

Service in a war zone — 20 yards from Ukraine, at the Moldovan border — did not frighten Keren, he says; he has served in the Israeli Army, in a combat unit that built field hospitals in disaster zones.

Back after in Israel after a week, he didn’t have time to unwind, to process what he had gone through in Moldova. Seven hours later, “I was in school performing” as Slinky.

Israelis — working through such NGOs as IsraAID and SmartAID — have brought medical supplies and training, food, clothing and other needed items to the camps and shelters in Moldova where the displaced victims of Russia’s war have fled since the fighting began.

Israeli clowns like Keren have brought what they know best. Their sense of humor — their attitude, honed through centuries of persecution of Jews and of exile, that laughter can be found in the darkest of times.

“Israeli chutzpah”. Clown chutzpah. It’s the same thing,” Keren says. Not giving up; finding light in the darkness; finding something to laugh about in a time of tragedy. Jews through the millennia, Israelis in recent decades, have shared that never-say-die attitude, he says.

The memoir of his grandfather, the Holocaust survivor, “was full of funny stories.”

If you don’t laugh, Keren says, “it means you have given up,” can’t escape from the surrounding gloom. “Laughter gives you hope.”

If a clown can’t make a kid laugh, the clown can at least calm down a distressed child.

It’s humor with a serious purpose.

The key to a clown’s success?

The red nose.

It marks the wearer as a dispenser of humor, Keren says

“The red nose is a superpower,” he says. “It breaks the barrier” between someone who needs hope and someone who provides it. “It creates a bubble,” a safe space. “The heart opens.”

Besides the red nose and unfashionable clothing he sports, Keren, as “Slinky,” does not look like a typical clown. “No makeup. No wig.”

Nothing “intimidating.”

At Moldova’s border crossing, the refugees coming over “non-stop” in groups of 20 were nervous about what, and whom, awaited them.

“The first people they saw when they crossed the border,” Keren says, “were Israelis, Jews.”

During his time in Moldova, Keren estimates, he bonded with 300 kids, and did “some silly stuff” for adults — including the children’s mothers and grandparents (virtually “no men”), Moldovan soldiers and health care professionals.

Unlike his work in a hospital, which Keren can leave after a day’s assignment, in Moldova he was figuratively in the same foxhole, the same situation, as the refugees.

At Moldova’s southern border with Ukraine, during a snowstorm, “I was freezing, I was shivering.” Just like the refugees. They saw and appreciated the clowns’ sacrifice, he says.

Keren spent his time with refugees in a sports stadium, a shelter, a synagogue compound, an expo center that was turned into a processing center, at a JCC, on a bus that took refugees from the border to some nearby tents, and on the plane that took 100 of the refugees to Israel.

He passed out food and blankets; he helped the refugees complete their visa application process; he helped arrange for a father with cancer in an Odessa hospital to rejoin his family in Moldova; he helped a social worker set up a kindergarten for a group of refugee youngsters; he procured and distributed a stash of lollipops and toys for the refugees; he played games with them; he danced, silly dances, with the refugees.

He celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat in an Irish pub that had been converted into a kosher restaurant.

He worked with Jewish and non-Jewish refugees.

He allowed kids “to be kids again.”

He gave some respite to their families.

And he posted his experiences on Facebook.

The work of the Dream Doctors made CNN and Sky News.

“I would really want to go back,” he says. “I would go wherever I’m needed, maybe after Passover.”

Keren’s strongest memory of his days in Moldova was giving the award to Misha.

The presentation made Misha’s mother cry.

“Why are you crying?” Misha and his fellow clown asked her.

When they had to flee, Misha had to leave behind the many boxing awards and trophies he had won, his mother said; no room in the suitcase. “We don’t know if we will ever see them again.”

The clowns had returned part of her son’s missing life.

That’s what brought the mother’s tears.

“We hurt too,” Keren says.

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