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Lincoln magicians bring joy to refugees at the border

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Posted on July 3, 2019 |
By Christopher Ross



Magicians in Columbia recently.jpg
DURING A RECENT trip to Colombia, Magicians Without Borders founder Tom Verner teaches a young man how to do a trick.

LINCOLN — Tom Verner and Janet Fredericks performed magic at the U.S.–Mexico border last December.

Not the kind of magic that allows tired, hungry and fearful refugees to simply waltz across the border to new lives in America. The Lincoln couple, working as Magicians Without Borders, staged a show of sleights-of-hand and humor designed to not only entertain, but also to provide a light of hope in dark circumstances.

Since that December trip, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has encountered more than half a million additional migrants hoping to enter the U.S. The vast majority of these refugees were arrested and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in facilities that a growing number of experts, including Holocaust scholars, have compared to concentration camps.

Performing at the border last year, and again this past March, has helped Verner and Fredericks better understand the issues there.

“These refugees didn’t want to leave their homes,” Verner told the Independentthis week. “They’re fleeing murderous violence, political oppression and grinding poverty, and they’re coming to the closest place where, as the Statue of Liberty says, they can ‘breathe free.’”

During their March trip, Verner and Fredericks met a six-year-old boy named Sebastian, whose family had fled Honduras. Because Sebastian has cerebral palsy and cannot walk, his father had carried him on his back — for more than 1,800 miles.

The conditions and political climate of the U.S. border are nothing, however, compared with those in Honduras, Sebastian’s father told Verner.

It’s the kind of story the Lincoln residents have encountered over and over again — all over the world.

Since founding Magicians Without Borders in 2002, Verner and Fredericks have traveled to more than 40 countries and performed for “over 1 million of the most forgotten people in the world.” 

Their mission is to entertain, educate and empower.

BEGINNINGS

In 2001 Verner, then a professor of psychology at Burlington College, was traveling through the Balkans, performing magic shows in refugee camps in Kosovo and Macedonia.

“It was a transformative experience,” he said.

In one Macedonian camp, which sheltered about 2,000 people, mostly Roma, Verner met a little girl named Fatima who became his “assistant” for the day.

“We couldn’t understand each other’s languages, but we understood each other,” Verner said.

When it came time for Verner to move on to the next camp, however, he could not find Fatima to say good-bye. Disappointed, he returned to his car, only to find Fatima hiding in the back seat. She begged Verner to take her with him, but he could not.

JANET FREDERICKS, RIGHT, entertains children in India during a performance by Lincoln-based Magicians Without Borders. The group, which uses magic to open up a world of possibilities to people in difficult situations, was not allowed to take photos at the U.S.-Mexico border during their recent trip there. Below, Tom Verner educates a young assistant during a recent performance by Magicians Without Borders.

Verner’s driver then suggested they visit Shutka, Macedonia, which the driver said was “swollen with refugees.” Within 10 minutes of their arrival in the main square more than 300 people had gathered to watch him perform, Verner said.

Afterward, he recalled, “a Roma woman who’d seen me multiplying things in my show, came up to me holding a five-dinari Macedonian coin. ‘Make more money,’ she said. She thought if I could make things multiply, why not money?” 

Verner performed a trick producing a 50-dinari coin — the equivalent of about 80 cents at the time — and the woman was genuinely thrilled.

After she walked away, two Roma men who’d been watching asked Verner if he could produce visas to America.

“They were completely serious,” Verner said. “As if I could wave a magic wand and Condoleezza Rice would suddenly sign the necessary paperwork.”

These and other encounters led to an epiphany for Verner, which he distills into a quote from fellow magician Harry Houdini — himself a refugee from Hungary:

“In certain circumstances, magic not only amazes and amuses but it has the power to awaken hope that the impossible is possible.”

Upon his return to Vermont, Verner obtained a year’s leave from Burlington College to found Magicians Without Borders.

“That one year has turned into 18,” he said happily.

TEACHING MAGIC

In 2004, Magicians Without Borders (MWB) visited El Salvador, which was still reeling in the aftermath of a 12-year civil war that had been fought in large part by child soldiers.

The founder-director of the Salvadoran Rural Health Association was so impressed with Verner’s school performances that she asked him to teach some magic tricks to children participating in a program called “Barefoot Angels” (so named because many of the children had been working barefoot in a garbage dump). Verner readily agreed.

At the end of that daylong workshop, one of the students, 14-year-old Jaime Zumba, asked, “When are you coming back?” Verner, who had had no return plans, hesitated, then said, “How about May?”

That moment, Verner said, changed the course of MWB. Since then he’s visited El Salvador more than 30 times.

Soon, some of the children wanted to do more than just learn a few magic tricks. They were aspiring to teach it to other children. As a result, MWB now has programs in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

Two more programs have evolved in India, as well — one at a night-care shelter for the children of brothel workers who are trapped in the sex trade.

“These were children who had been sleeping under mom’s bed while she was working,” Verner recalled soberly.

That program’s Hindi name, Prerana, translates into English as “Inspiration.”

DREAMS

“We’re not trying to teach them to be magicians,” Verner said. “We’re trying to build their confidence in themselves. What happens is that these kids start studying and performing, and something starts to happen, you start to see all these benefits. It awakens dreams.”

Verner spoke of children who’ve gone on to pursue studies in nursing, culinary arts and social work.

None of this would have been possible, however, without the generous support Verner and Fredericks have received over the years, both abroad and at home.

In the coming weeks, for instance, allies of MWB have scheduled two fundraising events at Bixby Library in Vergennes, which they hope will help fund another trip to the U.S.–Mexico border in August.

Magicians Without Borders will perform for children at the Bixby on July 25, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., then give a brief talk about their work.

An event on Aug. 1, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., will be geared toward adults: travel stories and performance history, with some magic woven in.

In addition to these events, Vergennes resident Caitlin Harwood has started a GoFundMe campaign to support MWB's work: www.gofundme.com/f/caetlin039s-campaign-for-magicians-without-borders.

Verner hopes MWB can make multiple trips to the border in the future, in part because he knows what’s at stake. After all, even his own sources of hope and inspiration have emerged from deeply, shockingly tragic circumstances.

Jaime Zumba’s enthusiasm in El Salvador 15 years ago may have changed the course of MWB, but the young man’s lived experience, like that of so many thousands who have fled their homes, is all too familiar in that part of the world and often inspires too little notice.

“It is not uncommon,” he once told Verner, “for me to walk over a decapitated naked body on my way to school.”

For more information about MWB’s work — which far exceeds the scope of one humble newspaper article — visit www.magicianswithoutborders.com.

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]

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