Saturday, April 2, 2016

Poet Warsan Shire—The New Voice of the Refugee Crisis

The refugee crisis we are blind to.

The refugee crisis that was dominating headlines just a few months ago seems to be slipping out of the short attention span of the American media and public.  About all we hear now is about Donald Trump’s plan to keep ‘em all out, and semi-hysterical reports from Europe linking them with terrorism.  But the humanitarian catastrophe continues.  Thousands still flee war torn Iraq and Syria—tangled multi-sided conflicts which can trace their origins to American meddling and bombs.  Most end up in wretched camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.  Others are caught hopelessly in the ever constricting pipe line to the safety of Western Europe, starving on beaches, freezing in desolate muddy fields, held back by razor wire, and beaten by border police.  
News turns up in the unconventional media.  Just yesterday I discovered that Milana Vayntrub, the perky AT&T phone girl from all of those commercials and once a child refugee herself from Uzbekistan—who knew?—has shot a documentary on Syrian refugees in Greece on her cell phone and has founded #CantDoNothing, an organization dedicated to helping people find ways to become personally involved in helping refugees.  Good for her.  But we need more voices like her’s to wake us from our stupor.

Portrait of the artist as a young woman--Warsan Shire.
In Britain one of those voices has come from the combination of a young woman poet and Twitter.  Like Vayntrub, Warsan Shire was a child refugee.  She was born in Kenya in 1988 to Somali parents who fled that violence torn failed state.  He parents brought her to London when she was just a year old.  Despite the odds against her, she earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and was soon one of the most admired and widely read young poets in the United Kingdom, due in no small measure to her savvy use of the social media including Twitter and Tumbler.  Many of her poems seem to go instantly viral because as Alexis Okeowo wrote in the New Yorker, her poetry “will surface in one of your social media feeds and often be exactly what you needed to read, or what you didn’t know that you needed to read, at that moment.”

Shire has written clear eyed about the immigrant experience in her 2011 chapbook Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. Her work has been printed in numerous literary magazines like Poetry Review, Magma, and Wasafiri and has been included in book length anthologies.  She has also done readings not only in Britain but in Germany, Italy, Latin America, and this country.  Her work is translated into several languages.  Her first book of poetry is scheduled for release later this year.

Shire has already reaped important awards and recognition including being named as the first Young Poet Laureate for London in 2013 and won Brunel University’s inaugural African Poetry Prize the same year.  The next she was in Queensland, Australia where she was the state’s official poet in residence. While there she reached out to and worked with the marginalized aboriginal people.   

That’s quite a heady resume for a poet just 28 years of age.  But it is her haunting refugee poetry spread by the social media that has made her a literary superstar.
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 neighbours 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

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

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
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
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i don’t know what I’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

—Warsan Shire

what they did yesterday afternoon

They set my aunt’s house on fire
I cried the way women on tv do
folding in the middle
like a five pound note.
I called the boy who use to love me
tried “okay” my voice
I said hullo
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what happened?

I’ve been praying,
and those are what my prayers look like;
dear god
I come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night
I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

It answered

—Warsan Shire

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