I Gave Up My Traditional Aid Career To Bring Joy To Refugee Children Through Magic

After a 30-year career in aid work, I resigned to share my lifelong love of magic to inject happiness into the lives of children bearing the brunt of war
Magic for Smiles

I always have, and always will be, a believer in aid. Over the past thirty years in my humanitarian career, I have memories of helping poor farmers in northern Sudan learn to grow vegetables for the first time, my 130 staff and myself being attacked by rebels in northern Uganda, and working in war zones and conflict-affected countries outside the UK. I have held my career holding various charity positions from country director to campaign manager to adviser, and working in and campaigning on different countries affected by conflict in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

However, in early 2016 I resigned from my job in the Middle East to mix my work with magic. Since I was a boy, I have been excited by the mysteries of magic and its potential to delight. I have performed since childhood, and decided that after a 30-year career in aid, it was time for me to explore a different route, focusing directly on helping the children who bear the brunt of war through no fault of their own. Magic felt like the perfect medium – it has so much potential to inject joy and happiness (often in short supply whatever the quality of aid in affected areas), as well as provide other psychosocial benefits. And so I set up the apparently unique humanitarian initiative, Magic for Smiles.

Magic for Smiles

I chose to focus the work on Lebanon, as up to two million people, or at best one in four of the population, live in the country as refugees. Most are Syrian, but there are also up to half a million Palestinians (a people unbelievably still in camps since the creation of Israel 70 years ago), Iraqis and others. Due to the extensive use of nonsense or magic language to cultivate mystery in my work, I settled on performing under the stage name Jamie Jibberish. My work aims to use magic with deprived or vulnerable children, mostly refugees but also Lebanese – I conduct shows around the country in activity centres, schools, informal Syrian settlements, long-established Palestinian camps, and urban areas. I like to use familiar objects such as newspapers, bottles, ropes, balloons, oranges (and of course, rabbits) but use them in unfamiliar ways, in doing so nurturing the important idea that the impossible is possible. In addition I also offer some magic tuition with smaller numbers, a rare opportunity for many.

The initiative goes further than just much-needed entertainment, however. Also promoted is the use of magic as a form of psychosocial support for stressed or traumatised children suffering with the effects of war and life in camps. This means most shows operate within psychosocial programmes run by NGOs, supplementing informal or formal education and child protection. The impacts of work like this on mental and physical health are clear and wonderful to observe. The joy, happiness, and de-stressing effects are of course most obvious; but we can see increased concentration levels, cognitive skills, interaction, imagination, self-confidence, team work, motivation and self-esteem.

Magic for Smiles

It is amazing working with such a rich diversity of organisations, but making the case for this therapeutic form of magic on a regular basis is not easy. Magic still suffers from the label of being a novelty. Charities and NGOs large and small can simply be too busy or experiencing too many funding cuts to consistently offer children’s programmes – in some cases of the most specialist children’s agencies, the response can be that magic simply does not fit with their established ways of doing regular business.

The last three years of running Magic for Smiles has taught me three things. Firstly, while I have never been motivated by high salaries, I have found I have gone further – if in your fifties one is lucky enough to have savings, then why not be prepared to, within reason, foot the bill to fill the fundraising gap until a new worthwhile initiative is up and running.

Second, I have learned so much about what makes children tick and the impact of stress and trauma in their lives, and have found engaging them in magic is both intensely humbling and gratifying.

Magic for Smiles

Lastly, while my belief in aid and campaigning for change has not been diminished, my understanding of the value of more diverse, less obvious ways to reduce suffering has definitely deepened.

With well over 250 shows for almost 120 organisations under my belt, the momentum remains strong, as does the fun. With refugee and displacement crises, and therefore charitable organisations, in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and beyond, it’s so vital to bring joy and relief to children in difficult circumstances across the world.

Jamie Balfour-Paul is a former humanitarian aid worker and founder of Magic for Smiles. For more information, visit the fundraising page here

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