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Sparking hope and wonder in refugees worldwide

Sparking hope and wonder in refugees worldwide

Magicians Without Borders recently concluded its second tour of Ethiopian camps, entertaining refugees and host communities with mysteries and miracles at a time when food is running out in the camps.
6 April 2004
Tom Verner and Janet Fredericks of Magicians Without Borders perform for Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia's Sherkole camp.

SHERKOLE, Ethiopia (UNHCR) - Outside the Refugee Women Development Centre in Sherkole camp near the Ethiopian/Sudan border, 300 refugees have gathered under the shade of the mango trees. They have come to see a magic performance by Tom Verner and Janet Fredericks, from Magicians Without Borders.

The large crowd is particularly quiet as they watch the face of a blind Sudanese refugee girl who stands with the magicians in the centre of the circle. With a delicate and intelligent smile on her face, she feels soft sponge balls multiplying in her small hands. The balls gradually disappear, all but one, which she gently caresses as she is led back to her place in the crowd.

This little girl has felt and seen with her hands the love, laughter and magic these magicians have brought to tens of thousands of refugees in Sherkole, Waala Nihibi and Addis Ababa, as well as people from nearby host communities.

"This 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," said Moses Ekuma, UNHCR's community services officer for refugees in western Ethiopia's camps.

Magicians Without Borders began when Verner, a professor of psychology, was travelling through Eastern Europe and did some magic shows in the refugee camps of Kosovo and Macedonia. The shows were so well-received that he decided to take an extended leave from his teaching and perform full-time.

In 2003, Verner and his wife Fredericks, a visual artist and teacher, performing as a mime and clown in the shows, travelled to refugee camps and orphanages in India, Ethiopia, Haiti, Macedonia, Bosnia and Croatia. They have returned to Ethiopia for a second time not only because of its thousands of refugees, but also because on their last trip they were enchanted by the country's ancient culture and its tradition of hosting strangers and refugees that goes back thousands of years.

As they travel to the camps this year, they are continually reminded that the UN is making an urgent food appeal on behalf of the refugees in Ethiopia. Unless donors come forth, the refugees will have no food beyond May.

En route to the camps, they often stop in tiny towns and villages to have coffee at a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony or eat injera (pancakes) with the people in a house or small café. Before they leave a village, they begin to perform. Soon as many as 500 people, many of them children, gather to be amazed and amused at Frederick's funny antics with balloons and bubbles, and Verner's vanishing silk scarves, linking and unlinking solid steel rings, and passing a two-foot-long needle through a balloon without popping it.

They often end their performance with Verner tearing a two-foot-long strip of paper into many pieces. In the refugee camps, with the help of a local translator, he says, as he holds up the long strip of paper and begins to tear: "This was your life, a whole life, and then war came and you lost your friends, your family, your work, your home and then your homeland." With each loss another piece is torn from the whole. "And then you lost months and years in a refugee camp," more pieces are torn.

Verner places the shreds in his hand. "But with hope and courage, love and imagination, your life will come back together and you will go home again." He pulls from his hand only one of the torn shreds of paper, looking disappointed that the pieces did not come back together again. He places the piece back in his hand and says, "Nothing comes quickly to a refugee, they must wait a bit longer."

And then he says, as if remembering something forgotten, "As a great poet once said, "We must eat the grains of our grief,' and if we do, our life will not only come back together again, but will become even more beautiful." As Verner says this, he slowly puts each piece of paper in his mouth and then after a moment, out comes a restored piece of paper - not the original but a rainbow-coloured streamer 50 feet long.

There is great laughter and applause from the thousands of refugees who visibly seem to feel hope awaken in their hearts. Hope that their torn lives will be transformed, that exile will end and they will go home again.

Verner plays hoops with Eritrean refugee children in northern Ethiopia's Waala Nihibi camp.

"When I saw the disintegrated pieces of paper coming back into one piece, I realised I did not need to despair again," said a refugee at a show for urban refugees in Addis Ababa.

As they finish the fourth show of the day at the Waala Nihibi refugee camp for Eritrean refugees in northern Ethiopia, an English teacher from the camp tells Verner and Fredericks, "This magic show, where the impossible happened, not only brought happiness and laughter to the refugee children, it also awakened their imagination and let them know that nothing is impossible."

Their three-week tour of Ethiopia has come to a close. They have performed for over 25,000 people in the refugee camps and for the local people in the vicinities around the camps. They are planning future trips this year to camps and orphanages in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, and possibly elsewhere.