Jackie Kay is not a refugee. She was born in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father and brought up by white adoptive parents in Glasgow. But she writes and performs with the compassionate understanding of what it is like to be “somebody else” and she has drawn inspiration from women refugees who know only too well what it is like to seek sanctuary in a strange land.
It’s World Refugee Day on 20 June. This year it has particular significance. While political rhetoric on immigration is far from poetic, this week the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) reports more than 60m people are now displaced by wars, conflict and persecution across the world. A stark statistic records that one in every 122 humans on earth is either a refugee, homeless and persecuted in their own country, or risking great danger to seek asylum in a new land. That’s more than ever recorded and rising. “Were this the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th biggest.”
With that in mind, there seems something courageous – even defiant – about Refugee Festival Scotland 2015 which ends on Sunday 21 June. This year Scottish Refugee Council enjoys its 30th anniversary and the Festival, marking its 15th year, has chosen a bold theme: Celebrate.
We’re celebrating not only the contribution refugees make to the vibrancy of our communities and cultural life, but also Scotland as a place that offers protection to people fleeing conflict and persecution where they can rebuild their lives in safety: something we can all be proud of.
Looking for a poem to mark the occasion, I spot a book jostling for attention on the shelf. Wish I Was Here, a Scottish multicultural anthology, “represents the diversity of languages, dialects and cultures in contemporary Scotland”. It is a pocket poetry book packed with vibrancy.
And on the back cover there’s Jackie Kay’s In My Country. Which just happens to be one of three poems she reads on a YouTube video. Like the second poem in the recording, Somebody Else, it deals with a sense of identity. Or, multiple identities maybe. How many of us know exactly who we are and where we truly belong?
a woman passed round me
in a slow watchful circle,
as if I were a superstition
These poems also seem to touch on that disorienting “here and there” consciousness of strangers in search of home (Here and There was a poignantly simple three-word message fluttering on a “poetry tree” in Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square Poetry Garden during an event for Refugee Week in 2009).
Sanctuary is not easily gained. Jackie Kay has worked directly with the words of refugee women in Writing for Refugee Women, an event organised by the Scottish Refugee Council as part of the Stop Destitution campaign in 2013. The result was three more poems – Glasgow Snow, Constant, Push the Week – powerfully and painfully evoking what it is like to arrive alone and seeking asylum: unseen, unknown, inhuman.
No public fund, no benefit, no home, no sanctum
No haven, no safe port, no support,
No safety net, no sanctuary, no nothing.
Until a girl found you in the snow, frozen,
And took you under her wing, singing.
Back to that YouTube video. Darling, the third, immensely moving poem, is also a celebration of humanity. There’s warmth and love and comfort in the song to a dying woman, “I held her hand and sang a song from when I was a girl…And when I stopped singing she had slipped away”. Here, for Refugee Day, and any other day, is a reminder of what it is to be human, needing and caring for others.
And what I didn’t know, or couldn’t see then,
Was that she hadn’t really gone
The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones.
The dead are still here holding our hands.