It was Robert Burns in Man was made to mourn who used the now widely quoted phrase ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’. Little did he know the scale that men, and it is overwhelmingly men, would take this to in the so-called modern age.
Last year the United Nations reported the highest level ever of refugees at 65.3 million people: the first time that the 60 million barrier has been crossed. Higher than the population of the U.K. or France or Italy. Children make up 51% of the 65.3 million. Earth’s population is 7.349 billion people. That makes one in every 113 people on this planet a refugee. Every minute of every day, twenty four people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution, terror.
Every minute of every day, twenty four people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution, terror.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, talks of how, “The willingness of nations to work together not just for refugees but for the collective human interest is what’s being tested today, and it’s this spirit of unity that badly needs to prevail.” He’s right and it’s at times like this that the poets speak to us and ask us to reflect. Brian Bilston’s poem ‘ Refugees’ , an online sensation last year, does this brilliantly.
They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or I
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to to say
These people are just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way
( now read from bottom to top )
I’ll see you on the other side
In Conversations about home (at the deportation centre), Warsan Shire writes, “I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing. I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing.” In conclusion she writes: “I hear them say, go home ….All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is in the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.”
We are not cruel and heartless but we are forgetful. The plight of refugees was brought forcefully to mind as we shed tears at the picture of Aylan Kurdi a three year old Syrian boy whose body was found washed up on a beach on Turkey. His parents had borrowed money to pay for their perilous journey. Warsan’s parents were lucky and made it to the UK where they now live. Yet, once here refugees find a welcome which is mixed and is led by Government policy.
It was the current (at time of writing) Prime Minister who as Home Secretary sent round vans proclaiming on the side ‘Go home or face arrest’. This officially sanctioned threat was a message which demeans us as they govern on our behalf but also helps us understand what Brian Bilston and Warsan Shire are trying to get readers to understand in their work.
Gilgamesh, Stephen Mitchell’s eloquent translation of the world’s oldest epic poem, holds ancient, echoing truths.
… yet now that I stand
before you , now that I see who you are,
I can’t fight, something is holding me back.”
Gilgamesh to Utnapishtim
‘Now that I stand before you, now that I see who you are’. This is where we need to act on the invocation made by Fillipo Grandi and ‘this spirit of unity that badly needs to prevail’. Yes we have different pasts but on this small planet we have a shared future and one where we can learn from each other.
And what have we got to learn ? Well we learn from poets to treat our fellow humans as equals. Refugees are forced from their home. Reading their words you will find an ache for what was left behind. Once here, wherever here is for refugees, they need respite.
In literature analogy can be used to show that despite the harshest treatment solace and comfort can be found. In Greek mythology Proserpine is abducted by Pluto to be Queen of Hades. She is allowed to return to Earth for part of the year. One of our greatest poets, Shelley, inspired by Enna on the island of Sicily in the Mediterranean which Aylan and his family tried to cross, wrote her a song.
Song of Proserpine
Sacred Goddess, Mother Earth,
Thou from whose immortal bosom
Gods, and men, and beasts gave birth,
Leaf and blade, and bud and blossom,
Breathe thine influence most divine
On thine own child Proserpine.
If with mists of evening dew
Thou dost nourish these young flowers
Till they grow, in scent and hue,
Fairest children of the Hours,
Breathe thine influence most divine
On thine own child, Proserpine.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
His song reminds us that we can find solace and comfort in nature as well as each other. But it also reminds us of another universal truth. We are all children of the ‘ Sacred Goddess, Mother Earth’ and Refugee week reminds us to ‘nourish these young flowers’ who flee their homeland with such themes ‘different pasts, shared future ‘ and ‘connect’. We have much to learn from each other.
Refugee Week 2017 is from 19-25 June.
Refugee Festival Scotland 2017 is from 20 June to 2 July.
Featured image: graffiti found on a wall in Edinburgh