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
and even then you carried the anthem under
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.
– Home, Warsan Shire
This poem by Somali poet Warsan Shire was what immediately came to mind when I first started hearing about the refugee crisis in Syria. I think I’ve come to associate anything that requires a deeper sense of vulnerability with her work, from For Women Who Are Difficult to Love to Grandfather’s Hands from her poetry collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth.
I’ve always turned to poetry and literature to make sense of what happens around me, finding solace in words more than the images I see on television. And while it can be about format of delivery, it is the way that poetry and literature can reach a level of shared humanity with its reader more than any other medium can.
Some books on the stories and experiences of refugees that I’ve read in the past are those Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Dreams of a Boy Soldier, Dave Egger’s What is the What (an account of Valentino Achak Deng’s life, of whom I was fortunate enough to meet) and more recently, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (read my review of the book here). These books talked about the lives of African and Vietnamese refugees, the plight of fleeing for safety and survival that so many Syrians are currently attempting.
There are currently 4.8 million registered Syrian refugees as of March 2016, after the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011. About 6.6 million have been displaced, and most refugees have been seeking refuge in Turkey, Lebanon and in other European nations. They are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, children fleeing the country they call home to save their lives, after the authoritarian government of Assad was toppled.
In 2015, countless headlines of boats capsizing and dead bodies of children floating ashore dominated the news. In an article from The New Yorker magazine, I read about how Ghaith, a 22-year old law student crossed ten borders — leaving behind his mother and wife — so he can start anew in Sweden and hopefully bring the rest of his family with him.
His journey to Sweden was marred with harrowing exchanges with smugglers, counterfeiters, border officials and other smugglers.
You reach a point when you become numb, I was standing there naked. I felt like I was not a human anymore.
Ghaith, after being harassed, slapped and strip-searched
by an Italian security official
Countless others like Muhammad, a school principal in Syria had to flee with his wife and six children hoping for reprieve from the bombs and missiles that rained on his village. After arriving at the Idomeni camp in Greece, Muhammad is still hoping for a brighter future along with other refugees.
I think about women and children throughout all of this, knowing that they are the most vulnerable in these situations. I came across a piece from Refinery29 called Behind The Deadlines: Daughters of Paradise which featured the lives of several Syrian women refugees. Women and children are at the risk of exploitation and sexual harassment, prey to human trafficking.
While absorbing populations of Syrian refugees is being debated around the world, it is worth noting that the war was even more aggravated as countries like the U.S. and Russia joined the military fray.
At one time, the plight of Syrians for democracy inspired the whole world and put the Arab Spring in action. But at what cost? Whose lives are being sacrificed, whose lives are being ignored? And who is benefitting the most? The greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation has revealed that at our core, we are still a species driven by fear (see: Brexit) reliant on military aggression for solution.
Once again, I turn to Warsan.
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.