Pulling hope out of a hat
By Kevin O'Connor
Staff Writer | July 30,2006
Jon Olender / Rutland Herald
Tom Verner and Janet Fredericks, pictured at their home in Lincoln, perform as Magicians Without Borders at refugee camps, orphanages, schools and hospitals worldwide.
Vermont magician Tom Verner can't speak the native tongue of Shutka, Macedonia. But when a poor woman there handed him a 5-denar coin, he knew exactly what she wanted.
Five years ago, Verner was set to fly to Eastern Europe when he stumbled across a news report about refugees fleeing the war-torn province of Kosovo. Concerned and curious, the 60-year-old Lincoln resident decided to see for himself.
"I had heard so much about how terrible these people's lives were," he recalls. "They literally got their houses out of a garbage dump."
That's why the woman, pressing the coin in Verner's palm, gestured for him to make more. And so he closed his hand, then opened it to reveal a 50-denar piece that multiplied her money tenfold.
Her smile said everything she couldn't.
Returning to Vermont, Verner was inspired to set up Magicians Without Borders, a nonprofit organization to serve refugee camps, orphanages, schools and hospitals worldwide.
He and his wife Janet Fredericks, traveling up to six months each year, have since performed in Europe (in Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Ukraine, as well as for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican), Africa (Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda), Asia (Bangladesh, Burma, India and Thailand) and the Americas (El Salvador, Haiti and the southern United States hit by Hurricane Katrina).
Seen-it-all skeptics may view their work as simple sleight of hand. But for people who've sat years in the same squalid, stagnant place, it sparks laughter, surprise and escape.
"People don't know there are 20 million refugees in the world and they live in camps for decades," Verner says. "Magic can awaken hopes and dreams. Magic makes the impossible seem possible."
Spirit of Houdini
Verner grew up a nomad himself. Born in an Irish Catholic coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, he left home at age 13 to live in a monastery in upstate New York. At 20, he joined the Peace Corps to teach English in Iran. At 22, he returned to the United States to study clinical psychology and work at an alcohol and drug treatment center in Hartford, Conn.
One addict there always had something up his sleeve.
"He was an incredible magician," Verner recalls. "I begged him for months to teach me something."
Finally, the addict showed him the French Drop.
"Take a coin and put it in your hand," Verner demonstrates, "and then you just wave it and make it vanish."
Verner built up his bag of tricks — actually his brother's old suitcase — as he moved to Vermont to become a psychology professor at Burlington College in 1979. But he didn't start his humanitarian work until his trip to Eastern Europe in the fall of 2001.
Verner, with help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, performed 15 shows for more than 2,000 refugees in Kosovo and Macedonia. At the first stop, a 5-year-old girl named Fatima volunteered to assist. She was a standout. Then, just before Verner had to depart, she disappeared.
The magician found her hiding in the back of his car.
Verner was reminded of another refugee, Harry Houdini, who once wrote in his journal: "I sometimes feel that when I am all wrapped up with ropes, chains and locks and escape from my impossible situation, I think that I sometimes inspire hope in people that they too can escape from their impossible situation."
Returning to Vermont, Verner capped the academic year by winning his college's distinguished faculty award. His mind, however, was a world away. He decided to take a leave from full-time teaching and form the magician's equivalent of Doctors Without Borders, the world health care organization that won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize.
Trick or treat?
Verner credits the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for help with scheduling, lodging, local transportation and translation. The Geneva-based agency publicizes Magicians Without Borders on its Web site, www.unhcr.org.
Verner also finds assistance closer to home. Performing in Eastern Europe, he discovered he needed someone to distract his audience while he was setting up. Soon his wife — a visual artist and fellow Burlington College faculty member — pinned a sunflower on a derby hat and proclaimed herself the mime-clown "La Fleur."
Refugees in robes, rags or saris now stare as Fredericks blows soap bubbles — for many, magic in itself — before her husband (the very tall, very white, very bearded man) opens his suitcase of silk scarves, sponge balls and steel rings.
Every stop has a story. Take India, the first place Verner visited after organizing Magicians Without Borders. The country conjures up visions of Buddha, Hindu gods and snake charmers in the street. But Verner knows its flipside: His adopted daughter, Mira, lived in an orphanage there until age 1.
In 2003, father and grown daughter flew to her birthplace to perform. Returning with Fredericks in 2004, Verner entertained children at Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity and young people rescued from the sex trade. That Thanksgiving they visited India's largest home for mentally ill youth, even though its director voiced reluctance.
"I don't think the children will understand," Verner remembers her saying.
Then she saw the show.
"When can you come back?" she asked.
Others, however, equate magic with witchcraft. Some in the Sudan People's Liberation Army thought such trickery caused a helicopter crash that killed the country's vice president a year ago this month.
"We sometimes have to explain a few of the tricks to the elders, in Africa particularly, so they know it's just a trick," Fredericks says.
"And Janet goes out and gets them laughing so the magic is done in an atmosphere of levity and fun," Verner adds.
Magic as metaphor
The couple also adjusts its act to the local culture. In Burma after the 2004 tsunami, Verner learned not to place his hand atop a child's head (it's considered rude). In Bangladesh, Fredericks traded her skirt for Charlie Chaplin pants so as not to offend Muslims who expect women to cover themselves in public.
The two try to learn a few words in each country's language, but leave their official communication to local translators. Although most of his tricks are seen rather than heard, Verner often ends his performances pointing to an interpreter and a 2-foot-long strip of paper.
"Imagine this is your life," the magician will say. "It is a whole life, a good life. And then war comes, famine comes."
He'll grab the paper with both hands.
"And you lose your friends."
He'll rip off a piece.
"You lose your work."
He'll rip off another.
"You lose your family, you lose your home and finally you lose your homeland and have to flee to another country as a refugee. And then you lose years and years and years living in a refugee camp."
By now that 2-foot-long strip is history.
"But, with hope, imagination and courage your life will come back together again because your suffering is like bread and if you eat the bread of your suffering …"
He swallows the scrap paper, piece by piece.
"You will become even stronger. And when your life comes back together, you will not only be whole and home again, but even more beautiful, like this."
With that, Verner pulls a 45-foot-long ribbon of rainbow colors from his mouth. Then the real transformation begins.
"This is wonderful," one Somali woman exiled 15 years told a U.N. reporter. "It means even our terribly tattered life will be mended one day. It means going back home is not a complete impossibility."
Verner hopes others see magic as a metaphor.
"Magic," he says, "is really about what is lost is found, what is destroyed is healed."
Verner and Fredericks travel during the fall, winter and spring before monsoons swamp much of the world. The two then summer in Vermont, where they tend flower and vegetable gardens and reap some green performing at area hotels and festivals.
"It's a time to make pay while the sun shines," Verner says.
The two volunteer their time to Magicians Without Borders and raise money for their plane tickets. To do so, they accept invitations to speak to community and church groups, where they mix magic with slides and stories about the world's refugees.
Remember the woman who watched Verner upgrade her spare change? Afterward, two men approached him with their own request: Visas to America, please.
"I laughed," he recalls. "But they were serious."
Too many others have similar appeals. Can you stop this injustice? Can you heal this illness?
"There are some heartbreaking stories," Fredericks says.
The two Vermonters could easily drown in thoughts of what they can't do. Instead, they dive into what they can.
"People are so touched that we're two Americans coming from a very wealthy country to give them a free show," Fredericks says. "It's much more than entertainment. We call it citizen diplomacy. Just the smiles on those children's faces — there's a real heart connection that happens. And that you can't quantify."
Verner and Fredericks are planning to perform in El Salvador this fall and then perhaps fly to China to entertain girls orphaned by the country's one-child policy. The two have their act down pat. But offstage, they never know what will pop up next.
Take the request they received two years ago to meet Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. The late pontiff, frail from Parkinson's disease but a circus fan since childhood, had invited performers to an International Congress for the Pastoral Care of Circus and Traveling Show People.
The pope wore white robes. Verner wore a black suit. Fredericks wore her red-striped clown costume.
"When he came in, Janet blew bubbles all over him," Verner recalls.
His smile said everything he couldn't.
Contact Kevin O'Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.