A touch of magic
Syrian refugee Mohamad Al-Nazer has the magic touch. He is a wizard with a deck of cards and entertains less fortunate refugees when they arrive in Hungary, hoping to find safety in Europe.
“We know we are lucky,” said Mohamad, 21, inviting me into his home in Budapest and introducing his parents, brother and three sisters. “There were no arrests in our family and we did not lose anyone. Other Syrians have suffered much more and we are glad to help them.”
Magic is more than a hobby for Mohamad, who calls himself Sherl Nazer because he loves Sherlock Holmes. “I enjoy discovering what lies behind a magic trick, like Sherlock Holmes uncovering a mystery.”
He practices for weeks before showing his tricks to enthralled spectators. “I get ideas from YouTube,” he said. “There was no YouTube in Syria, but here in Budapest there are magic shops and meetings for magicians.”
Mohamad was able to settle in Budapest because his father, physician Anas Al-Nazer, first came to Hungary in Communist times as a medical student. Dr. Nazer, who speaks Hungarian and retained some ties from his student days, watched the situation deteriorating in Damascus and applied for Hungarian visas for himself, his wife Lelas Barazi and their five children.
“We were hoping that by some miracle we could stay in Syria,” Mohamad said. “But when a huge bomb exploded right by our house, we knew it was time to leave. All the windows were blown out and the building was shaking.”
“We knew it was time to leave.”
The family flew to Hungary in 2013, ahead of the increased number of refugees who have made the treacherous crossing across the Aegean, and walked through the Balkans. Money they had been saving to buy a house in Syria provided a small financial cushion and they were able to rent a three-room apartment in Budapest with a view over the Danube.
Despite their relative luck, life in Budapest has not been easy. Dr. Nazer, 55, who had a thriving practice in Damascus, had to re-take exams to meet Hungarian qualification requirements. Mohamad works 10 hours a day, six days a week, in a mini supermarket, although soon he will take up a place at Budapest’s Metropolitan University to study animation, on a course partly sponsored by the Walt Disney Company.
“My parents wanted me to do something solid, like engineering, but they have accepted that I must follow my dream,” he said.
Using a laptop, Mohamad has made a simple cartoon to help fellow refugees learn Hungarian. “Hogy Vagy?” means “How are you?” in Hungarian.
I showed him another video that I thought might interest him. “Oh Canada” is Australian singer Missy Higgins’s song about Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler.
As the song came to an end, tears streamed down Mohamad’s face.
“I want to use animation like that, to tell stories,” he whispered. “The refugees are not numbers. Everyone has a story. All of these people had a house, a car, friends. They had a life. People in Europe ask, ‘How did you used to live in Syria?’ and I say, ‘Just like you’.”
Last summer, at the height of the refugee influx, the phone kept ringing in the Nazer household, as fellow Syrians got in touch to say they were in Hungary. A number stayed temporarily with the family.
Mohamad translated for the refugees and guided them from Budapest’s Nyugati railway station, where they arrived on trains from the southern city of Szeged, to Keleti international station, for connections to Austria and Germany. Between trains, many of them were accommodated on mattresses at St. Columba’s Scottish Church.
Mohamad, who had already honed his skills by performing card tricks for Hungarian schoolchildren, gave magic shows in the church for the refugees.
“They were not all Syrians,” he said. “There were Iraqis, Afghans and Africans, too. People call them economic migrants. But when you look at them, you see what their governments have done to them.”
The magic brought a positive reaction.
“The refugees were all smiling, even if they’d had a very bad time,” said Mohamad, who heard of cases where Balkan taxi drivers had taken the refugees’ last money.
“Over and over again, they kept thanking me, but for what? A bed, some food and entertainment? It was nothing. But they said we were the first people on the road who hadn’t robbed them.
“Such little things for them were magic.”