Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People
People on the Move
N° 99 (Suppl.), December 2005
TESTIMONIES OF PROF. THOMAS VERNER E
MRS. JANET FREDERICKS
First of all, Janet and I would like to say how deeply grateful and immensely honored we feel to be invited by the Pontifical Council to speak about the work we do with Magicians Without Borders.
I would also like to take a moment to honor my mother, without whom, in many ways, I would not be standing here today. From a very early age, my mother taught me that to be a good Christian is to serve the poor, in word and deed. I would like to honor her by dedicating this testimonial to her. She continues to this day, at almost ninety years of age, to live the gospel by serving those less fortunate than herself.
We would like to say a few words about how we were inspired to start Magicians Without Borders and then show a few slides from a couple of our trips. About four years ago, I was traveling to a Spiritual Retreat being held in Krakow, Poland. Because of my teaching schedule, I had a week free before I needed to be in Krakow. Through a wonderful constellation of circumstances, which I felt was guided by grace and God, I found myself doing fifteen magic shows in the refugee camps of Kosovo and Macedonia.
The first show was in a refugee camp for Roma refugees from Kosovo. Martin, a man from Poland working for Balkan Sunflowers, drove me from show to show. When we arrived at this first camp, Martin knocked on the door of a very humble hut and a wide-eyed beautiful five year old Roma girl, named Fatima, opened the door. Fatima became my guide and assistant for the shows that I did in the camp that day. Fatima did not speak English and I did not speak Roma but we developed a marvelous connection throughout the day. During the show, if I needed a volunteer from the audience she seemed to know it and would go and bring one of her friends to help me.
When it was time to leave I could not find Fatima and I felt bad that I might not get to say goodbye to her. When Martin and I got to our car, Fatima was in the back seat of the car, hiding on the floor. She was hoping to run away with the Magician and escape from the camp. The Roma women spoke to her and she was fine. My last image from that first camp was Fatima waving to us down the road.
We drove on for about twenty minutes and arrived at a town called Shutka. As we entered the town, which was also filled with Roma refugees from Kosovo, Martin said, "Why don't you do a show for these people? Nothing happens in Shutka." So I got a few boxes and set up to do a show in the center of town. Within a few minutes, there were over two hundred people gathered around, because "Nothing happens in Shutka". After the show, the people dispersed except for a few Rom a men. An old Roma woman came up to me and handed me a five Dinar Macedonia coin. She placed it in my hand and pointed to it in a way that I knew she was not giving it to me, but wanted me to multiply it into more money. I placed the coin in my hand and when I opened it, there was a chuck of gold in the palm of my hand. The woman looked at it, smiled slightly, but indicated that she wanted coins not a chuck of gold. I put the coin back in my hand and when I opened it there was a fifty Dinar Macedonian coin, ten times what she had given me. She was very happy and walked away with a smile on her face looking at that fifty Dinar coin. Instantly, two of the Rom a men who were standing there said simultaneously, "Make us visas to America." I laughed but when I looked at them I realized they were serious. They had seen the magic and thought it was indeed possible that I might be able to pull visas out of the air. I told them I was sorry that I could not do that trick.
That night back in Skopia, before I went to sleep in the house where I was staying, I thought about Fatima and the men in Shutka. In some way, when they saw the magic, they thought they could get out of their trapped situations. I remembered the great Hungarian refugee immigrant, Erick Weiss, son of a rabbi, who became known to the world as Harry Houdini, writing in his journal, "When I perform for poor people, 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." I began to realize that the universal language of magic not only has the power to entertain people, but also in some way, seeing the impossible happen, magic inspires hope in people.
When I returned to my teaching back in the United States, I could not get Fatima and those Rom a men out of my head and heart. After six months I decided to take a leave from my teaching and I created an organization, Magicians Without Borders. I sent out a letter to friends, family and colleagues, telling them I wanted to travel to refugee camps and orphanages to perform magic. There was a tremendous outpouring of support. So for the last two years, Janet and I have been traveling around the world bringing love, laughter and magic to refugee and orphan children in many of the most troubled and war-torn places in the world.
We would now like to show you some slides and tell you a few stories from a couple of our trips. These first slides are from our trips to Ethiopia. Here we are at the UNHCR compound in Gambella in the West of Ethiopia, near the Sudan‑Ethiopia border. The UNHCR has been very supportive of our work in the refugee camps. They have not given us financial support, but have provided us with transportation, room and board, and access to the refugee camps. Without the UNHCR we would not have been able to do the work we have done in the refugee camps in Africa and the Balkans.
Here we are showing the elders in Bonga Refugee Camp (Western Ethiopia) some magic and explaining to them that the magic we do is not for harming or healing people, but for entertaining and making people laugh. In this picture you see the elders introducing us to the tribal people gathered in a large circle. Janet begins with meeting and greeting the people with funny handshakes and silly antics. Within a matter of moments, Janet has the crowd laughing uproariously. When the magic begins, the crowd knows we are there to entertain and bring love and laughter. During our two trips to Ethiopia we traveled thousands of miles performing for almost forty thousand refugees. The UN wrote two articles about our time in Ethiopa, which can be found on our web site. Here are pictures from those trips.
Our next trip was to Haiti where we did performances in twenty orphanages. These first slides are from a show we did for a church in Citta Soleil, a devastatingly poor slum in Port-au-Prince. While in Port-au-Prince, we stayed at St. Joseph's Home for Boys. The boys who live in this orphanage were living on the streets of Port-au-Prince, struggling with drugs and homelessness, staying alive any way they could. When they come to St Joseph's, in addition to going to school and maintaining the orphanage and the guest house they run, they become part of the orphanage’s dance troup ‑The Resurrection Dance Theatre of Haiti. They all learn to drum and dance and create dances based on traditional Haitian folk tales and stories from their former lives on the streets of Port-au-Prince. In these slides you see them practicing and performing their dances.
About five years ago, an orphanage for severely handicapped children was closing and they asked the other orphanages in Port-au-Prince to each take one of the orphans. Brother Michael, who founded St Joseph's and three of the original boys from St Joseph’s went to the orphanage to choose a child. As you can see in this slide (taken from a book written about St Joseph's) they initially choose a ten-year-old orphan named Soni, who was severely handicapped and had spent most of his life curled up in a crib. The boys went off by themselves into another room of the orphanage and when they came back they said to Michael that they wanted to take all of the children. "That is not possible, we do not have the money or resources to care for these children." "Where is your faith?" they said to him. “You did not have the money or resources when you took us in ten years ago.” Michael agreed and in this next slide you can see "Wings of Hope Orphanage," which has been built with the help of contributions from thousands of people. Wings of Hope is staffed mainly by the boys from St Joseph’s along with a couple of nuns and a physical therapist who comes to work with the children each morning.
The boys took Soni under their wings and taught him to walk and dance. When Soni was back in the original orphanage, almost every night he used to have a dream that he flew on purple wings out the window of the orphanage and flew all night through the hills of Haiti and in the morning he would return to his crib. One of the nights we were at St Joseph’s, the boys put on a performance of their dances for us. At one point, the lights came up on a pile of crumpled cloth on the floor; as the drums began to beat, the cloth on the floor started to stir and slowly a body rose from the floor ‑ it was Soni in his purple wings dancing his dream of flying around Haiti. In this slide, from a children's book called Soni's Mended Wings, you see Bill holding Soni as he flies around the stage. Truly "The Resurrection Dance Theatre of Haiti."
We have been inspired so many times on our journeys to refugee camps and orphanages by the power of the human spirit to rise up and prevail even in the most difficult of times. These last pictures are from our trip to the Balkans.
We would like to end with a few slides from Demme Refugee Camp in Western Ethiopia. When we finished our performance, the children wanted to do a performance for us. They sang and danced. For the last dance, as seen in these slides, a boy with polio came out on his home‑made crutches and danced for us. He concluded his dance by doing a handstand on his crutches. This final image of this young boy standing on his hands on top of his crutches is an immensely moving image of hope and spirit.
We often end our shows in the refugee camps with this bit of magic. I take a long strip of white paper and say, "This was your life; it was a whole life, a good life. Then war came and you lost your friends (at this point I begin to tear the strip into pieces, a piece torn off after each phrase), your family... your work... your homes... and finally your homeland and you were forced to flee with the millions of other refugees in the world and then you lost years and years and years, living in a refugee camp. However, with hope and prayer, courage and imagination, your lives will not only come back together again, they will be even more beautiful. We then discover that our suffering can be transformative and can nourish us. Our suffering becomes the bread of a new life. At this point I eat the scraps of paper and then slowly I pull from my mouth the pieces braided together into a beautiful strand that becomes a forty-foot rainbow streamer coming out of my mouth. As the UNHCR wrote in an article about our trips through Ethiopia, "...as the streamer came out of Tom's mouth, you could feel the hope awaken in the crowd gathered in the large circle."