Lincoln man brings magic to Ukrainian refugees
LINCOLN — When the magician Tom Verner arrived in Kraków, Poland, last month to perform for Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of their country, a Catholic priest there suggested he visit the city’s central train station.
When Verner arrived he found three large tents had been set up outside the station — one with hundreds of cots for sleeping, another stocked with clothing and supplies, and a third bustling with folks from World Central Kitchen, a nongovernmental organization that provides meals to displaced populations around the world.
Verner looked around, picked a spot not too far from the food tent and began to perform.
Children began to gather, then adults. Someone brought over a little table, and Verner’s first gig was under way.
It’s not unusual for such trips to begin in this fashion. Since founding Magicians Without Borders in 2003 Verner and his wife (and “magician’s assistant”) Janet Fredericks have traveled to some of the most war-torn places in the world, bringing love, laughter, magic and hope to refugee and orphan children. Sometimes, like last month, he arrives alone with just a couple of names and numbers.
“Often the places we go are in chaos, or it’s hard to find someone who has the time to respond to an email from some crazy magician in Vermont,” he said. “So we just have to go there.”
Soon, however, word begins to spread, names and numbers multiply, and a network is formed.
According to the United Nations, nearly 7 million Ukrainians have left their country since Russia invaded on Feb. 24. Roughly half of them fled directly west to Poland.
In Kraków, a city the size of Seattle that sits 160 miles from the Ukrainian border, the population has increased by more than 25% in two months, as government officials and community organizations scramble to accommodate an estimated 200,000 refugees.
During a two-week stay in Kraków, Verner visited abandoned hotels, schools and other buildings that had been hastily converted into shelters, giving a total of 24 performances before thousands of children.
For a couple of days he worked for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), an organization he has built a relationship with over the past two decades.
The UNHCR had set up a processing center inside an arena. Outside, hundreds of refugees were waiting throughout the day to enter, be counted and receive guidance and help.
“So I went up and down the line and did these little 12- to 15-minute shows,” Verner said. “I would entertain maybe 40 people at a time, then I’d move down the line and do another show.”
More than 95% of Ukrainian refugees are women and children, according to the UNHCR.
Verner discovered through conversations with many of them that they struggled with three major concerns:
- The safety and whereabouts of their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers back home, who were fighting the Russians. For security reasons soldiers in the field could not have phone conversations with their families abroad.
- What do to next. Should families remain in these dreary, temporary shelters, hoping the war will end soon? Or should they move farther west in search of a more permanent home and risk being thousands of miles away from their families?
- Managing the frustrations of living for months among hundreds of strangers in ad hoc shelters.
These concerns came into keen focus at the end of Verner’s visit.
For his final performance, he took an Uber to the outskirts of Kraków, where a thousand or so refugees were sheltering in an abandoned shopping mall.
“There was a trashed kind of sadness about the place,” Verner recalled.
Inside the cracked and crumbling concrete building, a large, empty department store space was filled with hundreds of cots in long rows, separated by narrow aisles.
“These were people who on Feb. 23 had perhaps had a home, with a garden and neighbors, in a community with a church and a school — a place they may have lived for generations,” Verner said. “And now they were sleeping in an abandoned mall.”
The people staying there had come from Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine and the site of the deadliest battles of the invasion. So brutal was the fighting there that a Ukrainian presidential adviser had called it the “Stalingrad of the 21st century.”
As Verner walked through the mall searching for the shelter’s director he could “feel the jangled, traumatized energy of the kids,” he said.
When Verner began setting up and word got around that he was a fokusnik (Russian for “magician”), a child came over and “kind of gave me a hug and kind of asked for a hug,” he said.
He interpreted it as “thanks for showing up.”
“Often when we visit places like this, the folks living in these situations, they feel like the world doesn’t know they’re there,” he said. “Sometimes just showing up is all we have to do. It’s kind of a source of hope for them. ‘Someone knows we’re here, maybe something good is going to happen.’”
Verner makes sure it does.
As he continued setting up in the mall, more children were drawn to him. Some helped out by setting up rows of chairs for an audience.
And as the show got started, so did the 10-year-old boys.
“There’s always a group of them,” Verner said, laughing. “It’s their job to figure out the tricks, to bust you. ‘Open that other hand! It’s in there!’ In this case they were saying it in Ukrainian, but I’ve been listening to Cub Scouts say it for the past 40 years, so I knew what they were saying.”
Gradually the adults gathered around, too.
“When I do magic for people in difficult situations like that, it’s not just to amaze and amuse, but it’s also to awaken the hope that the impossible is possible,” Verner said, referencing a quote from the legendary Harry Houdini.
But sometimes that awakening requires some careful setup.
That night, as always, Verner began his final trick of the performance by tearing up a strip of white paper into little pieces.
“As I tore each piece, I talked about how much the people in the audience have lost,” he said. “You had a home, I might say, and it was destroyed. Or maybe you have lost friends and loved ones. Now you are going to lose months and months, maybe years, living as a refugee.”
This is actually a pretty serious — and risky — moment in the show, Verner said.
A woman named Olga, who was in charge of the shelter, acted as Verner’s interpreter.
“But maybe,” he told his audience, “with imagination and hope and courage, your life will come back together again.”
At that point in the trick, Verner closes his hand over the torn-up pieces of paper. But when he opens it again, nothing has happened. The pieces have not come back together again.
“And I tell them, ‘It’s going to take time, and sometimes it’s going to be really discouraging,’” he explained.
Verner then pauses to talk about the sacred scriptures of the world, about bread and suffering, strength and beauty.
“Then I start eating the pieces of paper,” he said.
After he has put them all in his mouth, he has the kids say something like “abracadabra” or make some kind of magical sound.
Magic accomplished, Verner opens his mouth and pulls out a restored piece of white paper — followed by 40 feet of rainbow-colored paper.
“And there’s just this wave of hope,” he said. “It’s funny, it’s amazing and it’s crazy, but it’s also been put into this context of ‘Your life is falling apart … and yet it may come back together again and be even more beautiful.’”
It was a good trip, Verner said.
“One mother yesterday, who fled the brutal destruction of Kharkiv, told me ‘This is the happiest I have seen our children since we got here two months ago.’”
For more information about Magicians Without Borders, visit magicianswithoutborders.com.
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