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Does the war in Ukraine make you feel helpless?
I, too, feel helpless. My friend Archie felt the same way.
I met Archie many years ago. He’s lovely, and we’ve worked together on a few television projects. If you have never met Archie, I encourage you to picture the poshest magician imaginable and then multiply the level of poshness by a factor of ten. Add to that some charm and a big heart, and you’ve got an Archie Manners.
After several months of Russian military buildups near Ukraine's borders, Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. You will have seen the shocking images and videos from the war. The number of refugees fleeing Ukraine reached 2 million on Tuesday, according to the United Nations, the fastest exodus Europe has seen since World War II.
I began getting texts from Archie. He felt helpless, but he wanted to help. He wasn’t sure how. He’s not a medic, he’s not ex-military—he’s a magician. What could he do? How could he help? A few days later, I received a photo on WhatsApp from Archie.
He had found a way to help.
I asked him to write about it.
Four Days in Poland…
Written by Archie Manners
Like so many, I have been left aghast at the scenes we see from Ukraine, wondering what can be done for those forced to flee. Whilst donations are clearly an excellent way of helping, as a professional magician, it occurred to me that there might be another way to help. I wondered if performing for some child refugees might be a good idea.
That was on Friday morning. And everyone told me I was mad. But, by Friday evening, I was in the centre of Lublin, a Polish town 60km from the Ukrainian Border. Equipped with some warm clothes and a box of child-friendly magic, I met a man called Rob, who I had found through the Polish Red Cross. He, too, thought I was mad but was kind enough to help.
I spent a great deal of time working in the Red Cross Warehouse with Rob, sorting through the thousands of donated items – from toothbrushes and nappies, blankets and food. It was the perfect place to be useful when performing for the refugees wasn’t an option. But the primary purpose of my trip was to perform for children.
Unfortunately, I am not a children’s magician. Like many of you, I carry some sponge balls and have a thumb tip hidden away in the back of a cupboard. But I spend most of my year travelling the globe performing for quite glamorous people at quite glitzy parties. And my audiences are always adults. I packed some of those trusty sponge balls, a collection of rope, some silks, sharpies, cards, elastic bands, loops and flash paper. And off I went.
The first, in the swimming complex, housed 80 women and children. Formerly a sports hall, the lines of the basketball court were now covered by metal bed-frames, making it look part prep school, part prison. Women of all ages idled in the beds. Some were on their phones, desperately seeking news from loved ones still in Ukraine, others napping. The children sat in a play area – which was a corner of the Hall strewn with old toys, colouring books and sweets.
The first problem was getting in—the wonderful volunteers spoke no English, so I got out my phone and hit play on my pre-typed Google Translate message. The Google-voice read, in bit-part Polish:
‘Hello, my name is Archie, and I am a magician from London. I have come to Lublin to perform for the Ukrainian refugees here and wondered if I could come in and show the children some magic tricks’.
The look I received was as bemused as you’d expect. But after a bit of to-and-fro, I was welcomed in. Despite being full of mothers and children, I immediately noticed how quiet it was. Unsurprisingly, the Hall was not a place of laughter or smiles but instead had a funereal air. I struggled to imagine how these children felt, separated from their fathers and just about old enough to understand what was going on. They were supposed to be dreading going to school, dreaming of playing football, or irritating their parents over what to watch on TV. Instead, they were in a sports hall in Lublin, with no idea of what their future held.
With the help of the Red Cross, I was allowed in and sat on a bed next to two young girls. I asked them to put their hands out and gave them a small red sponge ball. Naturally, they didn’t speak any English and so had no idea why I was there, but with a bit of miming, I started making the ball disappear and reappear behind their ear – a simple magic trick.
The silence was interrupted by laughter. Slowly, all the children gathered around, followed by their parents. Before long, the Hall echoed with that most extraordinary of sounds –children laughing. It was such a simple thing, a ball just disappearing, and reappearing – but the mothers, aunts and grandmothers joined in, filming their children as they became more and more confused by a simple ball.
I continued performing until I had run out of magic and waved goodbye to the families. The 30 children ran towards me, and all hugged me, shouting ‘Goodbye’ in English. It made me realize that while these children may be safe, their involvement in this ghastly conflict is far from over.
The following day, Rob organized for me to visit ‘Deafzone’, a charity that houses deaf refugee children. These kids couldn’t hear the bombs that landed around them in Ukraine—they can’t hear anything. But they could literally feel them as they exploded, and now found their world even more challenging.
These children communicate exclusively in sign language. My sign language is limited to hand gestures that really aren’t suitable for children, so I resorted to performing in complete silence, a challenge to someone who relies on words for misdirection. This was really challenging – not only do I naturally crave an audience reaction but being forced to perform in silence made me realize how the children were just watching. My sleight of hand had to be top-notch.
Fortunately, having made a selected card float, their faces lit up. They smiled and frantically signed to each other. I hope the signing was positive, but it could have very easily been ‘Good God that Rope Trick was Awful’ or ‘I saw him put the playing card in his shoe. Why isn’t David Blaine here?’.
These children were, it seemed, completely without family. But they had each other – a group of remarkable young people with exactly the same experience. Unable to hear anything, forced from their homes, but with each other. They ranged from age five to seventeen, and the older ones were noticeably interacting with the younger ones. In that one sense, they did have family and were supported brilliantly – as all the refugees were – by the Polish community. Once again, though, their story is just beginning.
I visited a few other refugee sites, and the process was always the same. Trying to explain who we were to confused volunteers, performing for a small group of children before most of the Hall came to watch. One centre we visited, a larger site with perhaps 200 residents, a small girl I was performing for started crying.
I was halfway through my set, in front of about 30 children, when I noticed this small girl with a bottle of water, which she continually waved in my face as I was performing a well-known card routine, where a signed card appeared inside my wallet. I wasn’t sure what she wanted with the bottle of water, but when I finished the show, she looked at me with disgust in her eyes and began crying. I went over to her, worried that I had made her day even worse. The reason for her tears became obvious. The water was a present for me, and she was upset that I hadn’t taken it.
We all know that Magic is an international art. That there is nothing quite so versatile or able to elicit joy amongst people, wherever they are, and whoever they might be. Of course, refugees need food, shelter and warmth more than magic, but my time in Poland was an important reminder of how lucky we are, but also the ability we have to bring light into dark places.
Archie recommends donating to the Disasters Emergency Committee.