Raghed Bassam is only 5 years old, but she was depressed for weeks – until Cinderella and Donald Duck came to visit her.
Raghed is a long-term leukaemia patient. She’s shown significant signs of improvement in the past month, as a parade of clowns, animals and cartoon characters has been coming to her bedside - courtesy of the students from the arts college of Mustansiriyah University.
“They make me laugh, and when the nurse brings me the medicine to drink I don’t feel bad. I cannot stop remembering their jokes with me,” Raghed said.
A group of about three dozen students decided in mid-July to offer the entertainment programme to bring some happiness to the young patients at the Cancer Radiation Hospital and Children Teaching Hospital, both in Baghdad.
The students make their own costumes – posing as everything from Cinderella to Power Rangers – and they go in trios from room to room, dancing, singing and acting out stories.
Raghed was under great stress from her cancer treatment and her doctors were very worried about her, said Bassima Jua’ad, oncologist at the Cancer Radiation Hospital. But since the group of students started to offer entertainment, Raghed improved rapidly, Jua’ad said.
“This improvement does not mean that she will be cured instantaneously, but it has helped with the treatment,” Jua’ad said. Laughter improves health because it reduces the depression and stress that can suppress the immune system, Jua’ad said.
The trauma of staying in the dull rooms of the hospital contributes to the bleak outlook of patients, but the entertainers bring a bit of light to the children, Jua’ad said.
It’s a tough audience, but the troupes stay until they see the children break out in big smiles. They give sweets and sometimes kites and dolls to the children.
The group gets no financial support from the government or from local organisations, but pays the costs from their own pockets and from the donations of their families.
“Unfortunately in Iraq today, with the current lack of security, people are not so involved with arts and culture because they are afraid to go out to the streets,” said Khalid Adnan, a member of the student group and in the last year of the arts college. “Many extremists started to see theatre and dance as a sin against Islam.”
The dangers have stopped some Iraqis from going to jobs and school, but not Adnan. “We decided not to stay in our homes waiting for the day that Iraq will get better,” he said. “Instead, we decided to go to help people who need this art to survive - and for sure Iraqi kids are the ones most in need of smiles.”
According to the Ministry of Health, about 52 percent of all cancer patients in Iraq are children under 5. Some 6,000 new cancer cases are reported every year. Health officials blame some of the cancer increase on the depleted uranium used in bombs during the war.
Besides feeling better and healing faster, some of the children now can imagine a future: to leave the hospital bed and one day join the world of the arts, theatre and circus.
“I want to be a clown when I grow up, because the most beautiful thing is to see people laughing,” said 8-year-old Hussein Dua’a.
Hussein has been in the hospital for five months undergoing treatment for cancer, “and in the last months that I have been here in the hospital I just saw my mum crying,” he said. “I want to make her laugh with my jokes.”
Hussein’s mother, Zubaida Nuridin, 39, hopes her son’s dream comes true.
“May God hear his wishes, and he will be able to change my tears of suffering to tears of happiness,” Nuridin said.
Hussein said he knew he’d be an entertainer from the first time the students came to his bedside. “I want to survive from my disease. I do not want to die, but laugh a lot.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions