I didn’t realize it at the time, but the C+ that ticked me off in my senior year in the School of Foreign Service would turn out to be an important lesson. So, too, was a comment a professor made to me during a conversation about my fascination with documentaries: If you want to be a filmmaker, you have to actually make a film.

That dream is now much closer to becoming a reality.

I recently returned from a month in Jordan, where I was directing my first documentary film. We were shooting just a few miles from the Syrian border in Zaatari, a refugee camp that is now home to over 120,000 refugees.

The numbers are depressing — altogether, more than three million Syrian have fled to neighboring countries — and so was much of what we saw. Life there is bleak, at best. But, the story at the center of our film is one of hope, proving that the power of laughter can break through pain and suspicion. Our story focuses on two young women: a Slovakian clown named Timea and a Syrian refugee named Hanadi. One is on a mission to spread laughter, while the other is convinced she will never laugh again.

Timea calls herself a “clowndoctor.” She was in Jordan as part of the Emergency Smile team, eight clowns handpicked by a Vienna-based organization called Red Noses.

Before making this documentary, I spent a couple of years reporting on and working in Washington, D.C. politics. So, you might say covering clowns wasn’t such a crazy idea.

Hanadi has been living in Zaatari with her three young daughters for more than two years. Her husband was arrested in Syria before they fled, and she has no idea whether he’s still alive. To add insult to injury, her father passed away shortly after they arrived at the refugee camp. At just 26, Hanadi is brave. She marches to the beat of her own drum — I guess she has no choice.

She was reluctant at first, but over time, she trusted us enough to let us roll cameras as she went about her daily life. It was a unique window into a world to which very few are granted full access.

I’m determined to share what we captured with the world. We recently launched a Kickstarter campaign called The Language of Laughter to help get this film to the finish line. I’m convinced that we have a story worth telling.

Throughout the course of our shoot, Hanadi and Timea developed a remarkable friendship — despite both linguistic and cultural barriers. And something happened to transform them both. In many ways, God was the director of this film, not me.

Of course, my opportunity to pursue the story was not without speed bumps. There is tension in the camp, and Westerners are warned about the risk of kidnapping. In addition, we were in Jordan this January when ISIS burned alive the Jordanian pilot it was holding prisoner.

Working as a young woman — especially an American woman — brought its own set of challenges. I recalled a moment at Georgetown when I was taking Secretary Albright’s national security toolbox course.

When asked how she was treated while working in the Middle East as secretary of state, she responded, “When you show up in Air Force One, it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a skirt. I had more difficulty dealing with the men in our own country.” It wasn’t in her toolbox, but she taught me the importance of having a sense of humor.

Contrary to popular opinion, I found the camp to be an incredibly welcoming place filled with peaceful people. Many were curious about life in America, eager to open their doors and offer us tea.

But, it wasn’t all tea and sunshine. One afternoon, I was with my producer and two NGO workers, driving past a checkpoint just outside Zaatari. A guard motioned the car beside us to stop. Before I realized what was happening, the guard pulled out his gun and started firing. We sped off, stunned. I was later told the incident was likely drug-related. It was a sobering reminder. Yes, there’s beauty here — that’s the story we came here to tell — but there’s also evil. Calm can turn to chaos in the blink of an eye.

Looking back, my Georgetown experience was invaluable. The many late nights I spent in Lau, wondering why I was bothering to read the pages I was assigned, made a lot more sense when I was in Jordan.

Not to mention that C+.

It was from Defense Secretary Hagel, for a policy memo I wrote in his class about the U.S. role in Syria. I thought it was pretty good. He didn’t. Now, I get it.

If you really want to know what’s happening on the ground, you have to go there. Buy a ticket. Talk to cab drivers. Talk to politicians. Talk to refugees. Talk to NGO workers. Talk to military guards. Talk to street vendors. Ask questions. Take a risk … or two. Don’t just sit in the library reading Foreign Policy magazine.


Reilly Dowd is a 2012 graduate of the School of Foreign Service.

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