Vermont couple uses magic to help refugees around the world

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Burlington Free Press
May 11, 2012
By Melissa Pasanen

Tom Verner, a Burlington Faculty member, performs magic in a refugee camp on the border between Iran and Afghanistan. / Courtesy Tom Verner and Janet Fredericks

LINCOLN — Over the past decade, clinical psychologist and Burlington College professor Tom Verner has traveled from his home in Lincoln to more than 30 countries. Each year he has spent five to six months in communities devastated by war and natural disasters, as well as regions suffering from severe poverty and its debilitating long-term effects.

But it is not traditional psychological services that Verner has provided to refugees in places such as Somalia, Nepal and Eastern Europe; to hurricane and tsunami victims in Louisiana, Alabama,
Mississippi and Thailand; or to youngsters struggling to flourish in the red-light district of Mumbai, India, or a gang-ridden city in El Salvador.
Instead, Verner deploys a different set of professional skills: he performs magic.

In addition to working as a psychologist and professor, Verner, 66, has been a professional magician since 1976. He even owned a magic shop at one point.

“Ten years ago, in a really truly wonderful way, all three of these paths came together,” Verner said Wednesday morning in the cozy home he shares with his wife  and frequent performing partner, artist Janet Fredericks. It is also the headquarters of the couple’s nonprofit organization, Magicians Without Borders, for which a local fundraiser is being held Sunday.

“In certain circumstances, to paraphrase Houdini, magic not only amazes and amuses, but awakens hope that the impossible is possible,” Verner explained, “I often say the mission of Magicians Without Borders is finding people in hopeless situations and showing them the impossible is possible.”

Conjuring hope

It was just six weeks after 9/11 that Verner had some time to travel before a professional conference in Eastern Europe and decided to see if his magic skills could be of use in the nearby refugee camps in Kosovo.

“I’d always thought about doing magic in other parts of the world for people who were in difficult circumstances,” he explained, “and after 9/11 there was that whole thing in the air.”

Verner performed 15 magic shows in that first set of camps and surrounding towns including one “swollen with refugees,” that his driver stopped in even though it was not technically a camp.

“They really need some magic,” Verner recalled the man saying.

The positive response he received from children and adults gave him the impetus to continue to build contacts and connections and establish the nonprofit in 2002. Ninety percent of the annual budget of around $75,000 is raised from individual donations and small fundraisers.
The nonprofit has won the Rotary International Global Humanitarian Award and the Presidential Citation from the International Brotherhood of Magicians. It recently received a second grant from the Los Angeles-based Capital Group Companies Charitable Foundation, and Verner is actively working on more grant funding.

About half of Magicians Without Borders’ work has been organized with logistical support from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which estimates that Verner has performed for more than half a million refugee children around the world.

In a 2004 United Nations article about a three-week Magicians Without Borders tour of camps along the Ethiopian/Sudanese border, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees community services officer said, “The show offers rejuvenation for refugee children who live  in the monotony of camp life. There was such a feeling of hope as the show ended.”

An English teacher working with Eritrean refugees in a northern Ethiopian camp during the same tour added that the magic show “not only brought happiness and laughter to the refugee children, it also awakened their imagination and let them know that nothing is impossible.”

The language of magic

One of the advantages of magic, Verner explained, is that he does not need to speak the language of his audience. While he has done specific programs in response to requests for anti-gang messaging or HIV education, generally he uses techniques that require little narration.

“Magic is a language,” he said. “I don’t have to speak Serbo-Croatian or Hindi or Burmese. All I do is speak magic. Magic is universal. Everyone understands it. I don’t have to say a word.”

Verner has one particular trick that does require some explanation. He has found it as impactful with Bhutanese refugees in Nepali camps as with victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the southern United States.

“We often do this as the last trick and we find someone who speaks both the local language and English,” he explained before demonstrating it in his Lincoln living room.

Holding up a slender 2-foot-long piece of white crepe paper, he started, “So if we were in Sudan, for example, I’d say, ‘For a moment, imagine this was your life, your good life before the war. You had friends, family, school, a home, work, a homeland.”

“And then war came, and you lost your friends, your home, your school, your work,’” he said, tearing off pieces of paper and stuffing them into his fist, “and now you’ve lost years and years living in a refugee camp.”

“But maybe,” Verner continued, “with hope and courage, love and imagination your life will come back together.” He pulled at a tuft of paper poking out from his fist but only one small torn piece emerged and his face registered disappointment. “Well nothing comes quickly for refugees,” he said, adding that the audience would chuckle knowingly and he would ask for their help making magic.

Then, unexpectedly, Verner started eating the torn pieces of paper. “No matter where we go in the world,” he said between bites, “it seems like the sacred books say suffering can be like bread and it can make your life stronger and more beautiful.”

After all the pieces of paper were consumed, the magician reached into his mouth and slowly extracted a 40-foot length of rainbow paper. This final move, Verner said, has elicited ovations from people living in some of the most difficult circumstances in the world.

Passing on the magic

The energy displayed by the trim, white-bearded Verner on Wednesday morning belied the fact that it was just a day after he’d made a 20-plus-hour trip back from Mumbai.

In India, he’d spent five days working with a dozen teenagers, teaching them magic and guiding performances they put on for audiences from area orphanages. In partnership with Prerana, a Mumbai-based organization that works with the children of female victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, he has been working with the same group of youngsters since the summer of 2010, returning every three months.

Magicians Without Borders has been doing a similar long-term project in Santa Ana, El Salvador for the last eight years, working through a local health organization with youth who had been living in a garbage dump. Early participants in that program have gone on to graduate from nursing school and form their own magic troupe as an alternative to gang involvement.

On his El Salvador trips, Verner is now assisted by two young American magicians, one of whom is an ex-gang member from New York City whose family is originally from Central America. “They are a real source of inspiration for these kids,” Verner said.

These ongoing regular commitments, combined with personal reasons, have shifted the emphasis for Magicians Without Borders over the last year to more teaching and less performing, although Verner and Fredericks are planning some domestic tours including visits to New York State Veterans Administration hospitals in June.

The power of magic

Working with the young Indians and Salvadorans weaves back together Verner’s three-stranded career.

“I’m teaching magic but really I’m teaching self-confidence, focus, discipline, self-esteem,” he said, adding that his psychology training is of great value
working with youngsters who have experienced such hardship.

“These kids in India lead unbelievably difficult lives,” Verner explained. “They live in abandoned buildings, sleep under beds in brothels while their moms work above them. We’re trying to give these kids a way out. Without help, 70 percent of them will end up in the sex trade themselves.”

In an email, Saumya Bahuguna, Project Coordinator for the Anti-Trafficking Centre of Prerana, wrote that after Verner performed numerous times for that program, the organization asked if he could provide magic training to help build self-confidence, discipline, teamwork and goal-setting.

“Besides enjoying this activity as a means of recreation, the children have grown a lot,” Bahuguna wrote. They “take immense pride in performing magic,” she added “and form a positive outlook on life which is palpable .. . We have seen many of our children bloom and grow so beautifully.”

While no one expects the children to become professional magicians, the skills Verner teaches help every child. “There’s something about being a magician. It gives you a certain sense of personal power,” Verner said.

“My dream is that some of these kids in El Salvador and these kids in Mumbai will become the magicians who travel with me to the refugee camps around the world,”
he said.

Healing through magic

Verner has a seemingly unending stream of heart-wrenching and heart-warming stories from his travels. He tells of Roma refugees on the Macedonian/Kosovo border who believed he could conjure them visas to America and a Sudanese woman who asked him to heal her blind mother.

The actual benefits of his work are perhaps a little less tangible, but no less real.

Verner teaches the youngsters to weave their own stories into their performances and attendees at Sunday’s fundraiser performance will witness that when a young member of the El Salvador program joins Verner and Fredericks.

The 15-year-old will do a trick he created himself, Verner said. “He talks about a little boy as he takes a red ball out of a vase, puts the lid on the vase and vanishes the ball,” Verner said.

After the ball has disappeared, the teenager explains that the ball is like the little boy’s heart that was broken and lost when his mother killed herself. “And he says he knows how that little boy felt because it was him,” Verner said. Then the young man opens the vase once again and the red ball magically appears.

The teenager concludes by explaining, Verner said, “Through doing magic I’ve become stronger as a person and I’ve gotten my heart back.”

Burlington College professor Tom Verner has traveled from his home in Lincoln to more than 30 countries performing magic in in communities devastated by war and natural disasters.