Naming the Unnameable: Poetry and the Refugee Crisis

Photo: Cayuco approached by a spanish Salvamar vessel (June 25, 2008) by Noborder Network. CC-BY-2.0 (via Wikimedia).
Photo: Cayuco approached by a spanish Salvamar vessel (June 25, 2008) by Noborder Network. CC-BY-2.0 (via Wikimedia).

The experiences of people seeking refuge are near impossible to understand for those of us whose lives have never been disrupted by conflict.  Who do we turn to then, to make sense of such suffering?  Salman Rushdie suggests that it is, “A poet’s work … to name the unnameable,” and so here are some suggestions of pieces that may help to delve deeper into the shocking images conveyed on the evening news.

Despite the widespread use of the term ‘migrant’ to describe people making death-defying journeys across land and sea, Warsan Shire, the Kenyan-born Somali poet, teaches us that the decision to flee is not a really a decision.  As she makes clear in 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

While the mainstream media may only recently have discovered this crisis, it is, of course, nothing new.  War, conflict and persecution inevitably breed displacement.  Written at the outbreak of World War II, WH Auden captured the insidious rise and impact of violent anti-Semitism in Refugee Blues, capturing sentiments that sound sickeningly contemporary:

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

For teachers, there are numerous lesson plans and slideshows available online, and in addition to other more obvious cross-curricular links with history and geography, music teachers may enjoy Ted Slowik’s original composition Refugee Blues:

One of the world’s oldest refugee populations, the people of Palestine, face ongoing persecution.  Khaled Juma’s Rascal Children of Gaza.  The poem is read by Sorcha Fox at an event to remember the 506 young lives taken during last summer’s 50 day bombardment, and is a bare and heart breaking response to that ongoing loss.

Oh rascal children of Gaza,
You who constantly disturbed me with your screams under my window,
You who filled every morning with rush and chaos,
You who broke my vase and stole the lonely flower on my balcony,
Come back –
And scream as you want,
And break all the vases,
Steal all the flowers,
Come back,
Just come back…

Linking to Ireland’s own experiences of violence, English teacher Ruth Morrissey suggests Eavan Boland’s Child of Our Time as way of connecting today’s crisis to The Troubles, and to renew the challenges posed by Boland:

Yesterday I knew no lullaby
But you have taught me overnight to order
This song, which takes from your final cry
Its tune, from your unreasoned end its reason;
Its rhythm from the discord of your murder,
Its motive from the fact you cannot listen.

While these works evoke compassion for refugees and victims of violence, we are also reminded that asking questions about why conflicts occur, and in whose interest, is vital. As Sarah Clancy urges us in her poem, Revolt:

The point is not causing conflict or trouble-making
it’s about forcing the gate keepers to expose the real rules
of this game we’re entrapped in.

Addressing this question of who gains and who loses, Hollie McNish performs her poem, British National Breakfast, addressing globalisation asking why ‘foreign’ food, money and goods are treated so very differently to foreign people and families, “those foreigners ruining their lives…”

Elsewhere, McNish’s poem, Mathematics, again deals head on with the kind of casual racism and increasingly virulent myths on the rise across Europe:

I’m sick of crappy mathematics
Cos I love a bit of sums
I spent three years into economics
And I geek out over calculus
And when I meet these paper claims
That one of every new that came
Takes away ones daily wage
I desperately want to scream
“Your maths is stuck in primary”
Cos one who comes here also spends
And one who comes here also lends
And some who comes here also tend
To set up work which employs them
And all your balance sheets and trends
Work with numbers not with men

Canadian-Palestinian poet, Rafeef Ziadasph, reminds us to look behind the word ‘refugee’, and beyond the headlines, stereotypes and simplistic analyses of conflict.

The Palestinian people are possibly the oldest refugee grouping in the world.  Despite years of oppression, the strength and resilience of the community is undefeated and continues, daily:

We Palestinian wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world life, Sir

Finally Maya Angelou’s I Rise is for everyone who faces “fear, pain, loss, disappointment”, and yet still carry on.  Her words celebrate survival in the face of oppression and stand in joyful defiance of any move to paint those survivors as nothing more than defeated victims.

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.


For more work, The Poetry Station is freely accessible website with a great range of video poems from poets performing their own work |

See also: Benjamin Zephaniah, and Naomi Shihab Nye reading her poem, For Mohammed Zeid of Gaza, Age 15  and Jackie Kays’ Someone Else from her collection Off Colour.