For 25 years, Tom Verner taught psychology full-time at a small Vermont college, doing magic gigs on the side. Then one day everything changed. While in Europe to attend a conference, he stopped at a Kosovo refugee camp and performed. The children were awed, and so was Verner. He couldn't get them out of his mind. So in 2002, he took a leave of absence from Burlington College and founded Magicians Without Borders (www.magicianswithoutborders.org). Since then, he and his wife, Janet Fredericks, have entertained orphans and refugees in at least 11 countries, and he teaches parttime at Burlington. After their trips abroad, they visit middle schools around the Northeast to show photos of their work and talk about the refugees. Now 59, Verner is planning a trip in late spring to the tsunami-stricken regions of Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
CONDITIONS OF REFUGEE CAMPS: ''The camps are all different. I've been surprised at how big they are. The Sudanese camps in Ethiopia have 25,000, 30,000 people in them. They live in what are called tukels, traditional straw, stick, and wattle-mud houses just like they lived in in southern Sudan before they were driven out. . . . I've been in Eritrean refugee camps in northern Ethiopia where the structures were really, really primitive -- just sticks. They are generally well taken care of by the UN. You do see difficult conditions. . . . We were not allowed to go to one [Ethiopian] camp because the week before we got there, 75 people had been murdered."
ON SUPPORT: ''It's all being funded by individual donations. After we incorporated in the fall of 2002, I sent out a letter to 220 friends, family, and colleagues telling them what I wanted to do and asking them for support. Now that list is almost 600 people."
LESSONS HE'S LEARNED: ''Generally people in the world make a big distinction between Americans and American administrative policy. We're really liked in the world. Another thing is how many refugees there are -- somewhere between 20 and 25 million. It seems like getting away from the United States and looking at it from a distance can really open our eyes to all the wonderful things about us, and all the not-so-wonderful things about us."
TAKING MAGIC TO FOREIGN LANDS: ''In cultures where they actually believe in magic, like Sudan, I think it actually scares the adults lots of times, because they don't have a tradition of magic as entertainment. They have a tradition of magic for healing and hurting people. So what we do is perform for the elders first. . . . I actually expose the trick, which I would never do anywhere else. And they think it's the funniest thing, that it wasn't real magic. They come out and introduce us to the tribe and say, 'What you're going to see is something we don't have -- magic for fun.' "
ADORATION FOR HIS BAG OF TRICKS: ''Children just seem to get it immediately and start laughing, or being in awe. They find it funny, they find it scary, they find it a source of wonderment. Magic not only entertains and makes people laugh, but because the impossible is possible, maybe it also inspires hope."