Iran RPCV Tom Verner conjures up a better world as Magicians Without Borders
Iran RPCV Tom Verner and his wife Janet Fredericks, traveling up to six months each year, have 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).
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. 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.
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."
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."