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Magic transcends borders as Lincoln couple bring smiles to refugees in Iran

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AFGHANI REFUGEE GIRLS line up to meet Lincoln’s Janet Fredericks, co-founder of Magicians Without Borders, after a show at the Dashgheib Refugee Camp in Jahron, Iran, last month.<br /> Photo courtesy of the United Nations

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

LINCOLN — Even in the middle of a refugee camp in Iran near the border with Iraq, Tom Verner of Lincoln almost felt at home. “We just felt so warmly welcomed by the Iranian people,” Verner said.

Verner and his wife, Janet Fredericks, last month visited a dozen refugee camps and settlements in Iran with a delegation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While most of the group brought supplies or medical care to refugees displaced from their homelands by years or even decades of war, Verner and Fredericks came to entertain refugees with magic tricks and sleight of hand in performances for children.

Verner and Fredericks founded the group Magicians Without Borders in 2001, and have given shows in refugee camps, orphanages, schools and hospitals around the world, from India to Kosovo to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

To some, the idea of entertaining refugees seems to miss the point that the audience is in need of basic necessities like clean water and a roof over their heads. Verner said that one doctor on the April trip couldn’t understand the goal of Magicians Without Borders.

“I have a feeling he was … only thinking of these folks as bodies,” Verner said. “They also need hope and laughter.”

For many in Verner’s and Fredericks’ audiences, the camp or settlement was the only home they had known. Verner said that in some of the camps they visited, almost all the refugees were from Iraq and in others most refugees were originally from Afghanistan. And while many of those refugees were displaced by the current conflicts, Verner said that many others hadn’t seen their homes since the 1980s, when they were driven from them by the Iran-Iraq War or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Although the Lincoln couple has made numerous trips to offer a little entertainment to those in need, the trip to Iran had special significance for Verner. More than 20 years before creating Magicians Without Borders, he spent two years in Iran with the Peace Corps as an English teacher.

“I’ve had a love of Persian poetry for these last 40 years,” Verner said, and the trip offered a chance to reconnect with that. He and his wife left for Iran on April 3 and returned to Vermont on April 29. The first week of the trip was spent on a tour through historic sites in the cities of Shiraz and Isfahan, well-known centers of Persian culture, and the Iranian capital of Tehran.

Verner learned a little of the Persian language when he was in Iran with the Peace Corps. He said he had nearly forgotten it, but surprised himself during the April trip when he remembered a word or phrase out of the blue, like the Persian equivalent of “gesundheit.”

For the most part, though, he and Fredericks had to rely on UN interpreters to communicate with their audience.

On both this trip and his previous stay in Iran, Verner was struck by the history of the area. “The amazing thing about Iran is how complicated it is,” he said. Some of the earliest civilizations in human history lived in the region. According to Verner, history is so tangible in Iran that even Islam, about 1,400 years old, sometimes seems like a novelty.

“(Iran has) this rich, complicated culture that has been hijacked (by Islam) in some ways,” he said.

The current tension between Iran and the United States made the trip a little harder than it might have been.

“It took us a while to get it organized because it’s difficult these days to get a visa to Iran,” Verner said.

However, Iranian citizens themselves, as well as the Iraqis and Afghanis in refugee camps, were happy to see the entertainers. “The people in the Iraqi refugee camps really did not see us as the enemy,” Verner said.

The couple gave 15 shows in 12 refugee camps and settlements over about two weeks. Despite the language barrier, Verner could tell that the children enjoyed the shows. “I’ve never seen the children laugh like this in my six years working in this camp,” one camp worker told Verner.

Verner entertains partly to offer relief from the day-to-day problems of living in a camp, but he also tries to bring hope for the future to people who probably don’t have much. Many Magicians Without Borders shows end with a common magic trick. He rips up a piece of paper, piece by piece, each time saying that each piece represents another aspects of daily life that’s missing, torn off by war or drought or earthquake or terrorism.

He swallows the pieces one by one, leaving nothing — until he puts a long rainbow ribbon out of his mouth, often earning oohs and aahs from the both children and adults.

“Life comes back together,” Verner said.

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