Refugees: a poem by Brian Bilston

Refugees can be read two ways. Every refugee story can be read two ways. Usual media accounts tell the story such as “migrants have been prevented” – or, as here, “Illegals have landed”. Little is told of the desperate back stories of the refugees. Their voice is unheard.

Refugees can be read two ways. It can be read as if you don’t care. And it can be read as if you do. You can read it from top to bottom, or you can turn the world upside down and read it from bottom to top, depending on how you read the world. This poem can be read two ways. That is the way with this poem exploring two very different ways of reading the situation.

Brian Bilston is known as the Twitter Laureate. You can find more of his poems at his Poetry Laboetry

North Star Fading – a poem to watch for Refugee Week

During Refugee Week I have been posting a poem a day. Today’s poem is one to watch. It highlights misleading promises, extreme dangers and dashed hopes than many refugees have to face.

Please click the image to see and hear North Star Fading – a zoom comic from PositiveNegatives who tell true stories drawn from life – this from the lives of Eritrean refugees.

Karrie Fransman did the visuals and Lula Mebrahtu was responsible for the words and sound. Interviewed about the work Karrie explained “I’m Jewish and my grandfather was a political refugee. Our festival Passover commemorates our history as refugees, so there is a personal link.”

Lula has this to say. “My own experiences play a big role when I am creating. I remember a few years back, I watched a news report about a ship that had caught on fire and sunk near the border of Italy. A lot of ‘illegal immigrants’ onboard died. There were no names, pictures or interviews with those who survived, just factual news, and the narrative was focused on the immigration crises. That same day, my mother got a phone call. It transpired that a family friend had a son on that ship, and he died. His mother didn’t even know he made the voyage. My mother had to break the news to her.”

There is more from their interview at https://www.soas.ac.uk/blogs/study/north-star-fading/

Some poems I have posted for Refugee Week are shown below this post.

The British – and our refugee stock

Benjaminzephaniahcamff (cropped)

Benjamin Zephaniah describes himself as a “Rasta Folkie”. He’s a well known British poet who plays the part of Jeremiah Jesus in Peaky Blinders (I love Peaky Blinders!). He comes from Wandsworth, Birmingham, which he describes as the “Jamaican capital of Europe”.

I am posting a poem a day for Refugee Week. This poem is called The British and is about what makes us tasty. I am from Leicester which has a long tradition of welcoming refugees (as in this welcome the city gave to Basque refugees in 1937). But even there, I remember signs in pub windows in the late 50’s and early 60’s which said “no blacks, no gypsies, no Irish”. Little did they know, and little did they understand that they were from a long standing melting pot with some good, hearty refugee stock.

Here’s the recipe:

The British

Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.
Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.


Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,
Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,
Vietnamese and Sudanese.
Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians
And Pakistanis,
Combine with some Guyanese
And turn up the heat.
Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,
Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some
Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese
And Palestinians
Then add to the melting pot.
Leave the ingredients to simmer.
As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish
Binding them together with English.
Allow time to be cool.
Add some unity, understanding, and respect for the future,
Serve with justice
And enjoy.

Note: All the ingredients are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.
Warning: An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all.

Hungry Chair – a fourth poem for Refugee Week

Hungry Chair is my fourth poem to mark Refugee Week – picking up the “chair” theme of inclusion from Nicola Davies’s poem I posted yesterday, The Day the War Came. A common response to the refugee crisis is “there isn’t any room” – sometimes there is an apology about it, but usually not. Once in a while someone will make room in their home, school or community. Hungry Chair, like The Day the War Came, is a poem which thanks and praises those who do make room.

Denel Kessler is the author of Hungry Chair. The principal she refers to is Maha Salim Al-Ashgar, Principal of Khawla Bint Tha’alba Elementary School for Girls, Jordan. The poem is a “thank you for showing the world what compassionate action looks like”. The Principal’s action challenges my lack of compassion. The video is well worth watching.

Hungry Chair

Let’s talk about heroes
the everyday kind
a Jordanian principal
at a school for girls
offering a simple solution
rather than slamming the door
in the faces of children
who have done nothing
to create the war
forcing the families to flee
or die in the hateful dust
clouding the world’s vision

the school is overcrowded
but when Syrian mothers beg
for their children to be taught
instead of saying     no room
the principal asks each girl
to bring a chair and she will
find room for one more
students walk to school
carrying multi-hued chairs
so many eager daughters
classrooms full beyond bursting
but the principal keeps her promise
none are turned away

a loving heart refusing
to be the lock on the gate
offering instead a key
a  mother’s simple wish
for her daughter to write her own name
becoming “maybe she will be a doctor”
a seven-year-old girl declaring
“I want to be smart”
the world begins anew
with open arms, willing minds
perched on the edge
of bright plastic chairs
asking only teach me

I am hungry to learn

I found The Hungry Chair here

What poem would you choose for Refugee Week?

The Day War Came – another poem for Refugee Week

I am posting a poem a day during Refugee Week. I have already posted Home by Warsan Shire and My Hazara People by Shukria Rezaei.

The Day War Came was written by Nicola Davies in 2016 when she heard that the British government was refusing to allow lone refugee children entry into the UK. Nicola Davies is a children’s author and zoologist. The poem has been published as a book with illustrations by Rebecca Cobb.

it is striking how many of these poems I have selected for Refugee Week are about children. Here the child’s safe space is undermined in a split second: the place where they belonged becomes lost to them and they have no choice other than to go on the run.

One person responded to this poem by drawing a chair – I suppose there is a real welcome in our phrase “draw up a chair”. That idea grew into parading #3000chairs across the internet for 3000 child refugees alone and fleeing “all kinds of ghastliness” to “make the people who voted to shrug their shoulders and throw those kids to the traffickers hang their heads in shame”. Posting this is my offer of a chair – but as well I asked Vincent to draw one up for me as my way of saying “refugees welcome”.

The day war came

The day war came there were flowers on the windowsill
and my father sang my baby brother back to sleep.
My mother made my breakfast, kissed my nose
and walked with me to school.

That morning I learned about volcanos,
I sang a song about how tadpoles turn at last to frogs
I made a picture of myself with wings.

Then just after lunch,
while I watched a cloud shaped like a dolphin,
war came.
At first, just like a spattering of hail
a voice of thunder …
then all smoke and fire and noise, that I didn’t understand.

It came across the playground.
It came into my teacher’s face.
It brought the roof down.
and turned my town to rubble.

I can’t say the words that tell you
about the blackened hole that has been my home.

All I can say is this:

war took everything

war took everyone

I was ragged, bloody, all alone.

I ran. Rode on the back of trucks, in buses;
walked over fields and roads and mountains,
in the cold, the mud and the rain;
on a boat that leaked and almost sank
and up a beach where babies lay face down in the sand.

I ran until I couldn’t run
until I reached a row of huts
and found a corner with a dirty blanket
and a door that rattled in the wind.

But war had followed me.
It was underneath my skin,
behind my eyes,
and in my dreams.
It had taken possession of my heart.

I walked and walked to try and drive war out of myself,
to try and find a place it hadn’t reached.
But war was in the way that doors shut when I came down the street.
It was in the way the people didn’t smile and turned away.

I came to a school.
I looked in through the window.
They were learning all about volcanos
And drawing birds and singing.

I went inside. My footsteps echoed in the hall.
I pushed the door and faces turned towards me
but the teacher didn’t smile.
She said there is no room for you,
you see there is no chair for you to sit on,
you have to go away.

And then I understood that war had got here too.

I turned around and went back to the hut, the corner and the blanket
and crawled inside.
It seemed that war had taken all the world and all the people in it.

The door banged.
I thought it was the wind.
But a child’s voice spoke.
“I brought you this,” she said, “so you can come to school”.
It was a chair.
A chair for me to sit on and learn about volcanos, frogs and singing
And drive the war out of my heart.

She smiled and said:
“My friends have brought theirs too, so all the children here can come to school.”

Out of every hut a child came and we walked together
on a road all lined with chairs,
pushing back the war with every step.

Nicola Davies

van-gogh-chair-1888-89-the-chair-and-the-pipe-6252763

My Hazara People – a poem by Shukria Rezaei (15)

shukria-rezaei

The theme of Refugee Week 2019 is You, me, and those who came before. It is an invitation to explore the lives of refugees, and those who have welcomed them – throughout the generations.

I’m observing Refugee Week with a poem a day. This poem highlights the horrors faced by children – such horrors and distress that they can’t find the words to describe what has happened to them. This poem, brought to our attention by Kate Clanchy, is by Shukria Rezaei (pictured right) who “can’t write” about her Hazara people – she just can’t find the words. I read her poem side by side this report on the growing outrage over the separation of children from their parents at the southern US border.

Shukria’s Hazara people have been persecuted for centuries. They settled in Afghanistan in the thirteenth century but for much of that time have lived on the edge of economic survival, being driven from their land and being sold as slaves. They are Shi’a and have been persecuted by the majority Sunni population. The Taliban declared jihad on the Hazaras when they seized power in 1996.

This is the first poem Shukria wrote when she came to the UK aged 15.

I can’t write about my Hazara people
who have suffered for decades
in Afghanistan where they come from
in Pakistan where they are murdered
in Iran where they offend
because of their almond-shaped eyes
my mind is blank!

I can’t write about how loud the shooting was
just two miles from my house.
How my aunt fainted.
How nervous my mom got,
how the cup fell from her hand.

I can’t write about how innocent people died,
how the Martyr’s necropolis gets bigger and bigger,
how my people suffer,
how cruel this world can get,
how frightening it is

for kids like me.

Shukria Rezaei (15)

Home – by Warsan Shire – a poem for Refugee Week

The 20th Refugee Week begins on June 17th, with a look at #generations. The theme of Refugee Week 2019 is You, me, and those who came before. It is an invitation to explore the lives of refugees, and those who have welcomed them – throughout the generations.

I suppose there is an air of helplessness and resentment in those who don’t regard themselves as refugees. I share the sense of helplessness. But then I remember our own family story of a woman crossing the border in a boot of a car having past her baby to an unknown woman to cross separately. That woman never knew whether she would be reunited with her baby. Fortunately they were reunited. Without that baby our family would be incomplete and a generation of students would be missing out on a compassionate and art teacher.

This poem by Warsan Shire explores the terrifying circumstances which force people to flee for their lives. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. “You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well”. Warsan Shire (born 1988) is a fine British poet, born to Somali parents in Kenya. Here is her poem, Home:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

The place of maps

I have just been reading The Book of Negroes by Canadian author Lawrence Hill. It gets its controversial title from a historic document from the 18th century which is kept at the National Archives at Kew. It is a ledger of over 3,000 names of enslaved African, the “Black Loyalists” who escaped to Britain’s lines in the American Revolution. It was the first time in history that thousands of black people were formally recorded by a historical body, in this case, the British Navy.

The book describes the journeys of Aminata Diallo who was grabbed from her village in west Africa in 1750 by slave traders. She was just 11 when she had to walk “three moons”, shackled in irons in a coffle from her village of Bayo to the ship which would take her into slavery in the American colonies.

She makes the most of her very limited opportunities. She learns to read and write (in secret), and she longs to return to her homeland. Occasionally she is able to look at maps of Africa, but there were no places marked on them except for a few ports. Inland was shown with drawings of elephants – as if that was all there was.

I wonder if that is where we are sometimes. We can map thresholds and the ports. We can say so and so lives there. We can recognise faces but sometimes can’t get past face value. It is only when we care to listen, to let people speak, to allow them to show us around their lives that we begin to build up a better map of where they have come from, and where they might be journeying to. (The more diverse the maps, the better – geographical, historical, political, psychological dimensions all add to our understanding.) Then we begin to understand the hinterland. Then we can better understand each other.

This is what Aminata writes at the end of her story:

I would like to draw a map of the places where I have lived. I would put Bayo on the map, and trace in red my long path to the sea. Blue lines would show the ocean voyages. Cartouches would decorate the margins. There would be no elephants or want of towns, but rather paintings of guineas made from gold mines of Africa, a woman balancing fruit on her head, another with blue pouches for medicine, a child reading, and the green hills of Sierra Leone, land of my arrivals and embarkations.

PS. When I say that Lawrence Hill is a “Canadian author” I am guilty oversimplifying the map of his life – drawing elephants, if you like. He was born in Newmarket, Ontario – the son of a black father and a white mother who moved to Ontario from Washington DC. These are details to add to the map of Lawrence Hill’s life. Reading another of his books, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada might add psychological and sociological dimensions to that map. I’d like to find out by reading more.

Russell Brand tastes revolution in the Watford Gap

Russell Brand is always worth listening to. He is passionate and outraged. He is intelligent, and, he admits to being “fucked up and naive”. He gave voice to his outrage in an interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. Simon Kelner described the scene in the Independant. “On one side was a rather effete figure with an unruly beard who found it hard to take anything seriously, and on the other side was Russell Brand.”

Since then Russell Brand has been reflecting on developments since that interview. They are published in today’s Guardian. He is passionate about change and connects with the new movements such as Occupy. He writes of his commitment:

Well I am naïve and I have fucked up but I tell you something else. I believe in change. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty because my hands are dirty already. I don’t mind giving my life to this because I’m only alive because of the compassion and love of others. Men and women strong enough to defy this system and live according to higher laws.

He has seen the Apocalypse:

The less privileged among us are already living in the apocalypse, the thousands of street sleepers in our country, the refugees and the exploited underclass across our planet daily confront what we would regard as the end of the world. No money, no home, no friends, no support, no hand of friendship reaching out, just acculturated and inculcated condemnation.

and he has glimpsed the revolution at the Watford Gap:

One night late at the Watford Gap I got chatting to a couple of squaddies, one Para, one Marine, we talked a bit about family and politics, I invited them to a show. Then we were joined by three Muslim women, all hijabbed up. For a few perfect minutes in the strip lit inertia of this place, that was nowhere in particular but uniquely Britain, I felt how plausible and beautiful The Revolution could be. We just chatted.

> What is Remembrance Sunday about? How has it changed over the 90 years since Armistice Day?
These were some of the questions we looked at yesterday.
Remembrance Sunday remains a day of mourning. One day that we have set aside in our year to remember the victims of war, human nature and its consequences. But our thoughts will not be the same as those celebrating the hard fought peace of 1918.

Significant changes include
• The development of international institutions like the United Nations and the EU – great political achievements representing a cooperative relationships instead of the colonialism of the past.
• War has changed and its weapons have changed. Now civilian casualties are far higher. In WW1 civilian casualties were 5% of total casualties. Now that figure is 75%.
• Communications have changed. We now live in the “global village” where “everyone is networked and nobody is in control” – which makes wars far less winnable. As a child of the 50’s I was told how lucky I was that the wolrd was at peace. Now, because of news media and globalisation, we know that there isn’t likely to have been a moment of our human history when we haven’t been fighting one another.
• We know – especially as awareness of post traumatic stress disorder has increased – that, in the words of Jose Narosky “in war there are no unwounded soldiers”.
• We know more about “child soldiers”. Children as young as 8 are involved in conflicts in at least 17 countries – acting as spies, messengers and brandishing rifles.
• We know that there are over 34 million people displaced by war.
These are some of the things that come to mind as “I remember” – the thoughts for my two minute silence. I carry on remembering the “fallen”, those killed, their loved ones, parents and communities. I remember all those who have been on the front line. I remember the civilian casualties, the child soldiers and the refugees. I remember the violence that is part of being human and I remember that we are made in God’s image – and called to pray:

God our refuge and strength,
bring near the day when wars shall cease
and poverty and pain shall end,
that earth may know the peace of heaven
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(the poppy picture was pianted by friend Pam Kelly – member of St Andrew’s Painters’ Group)