Friday, September 04, 2015

Poetry and Refugees

Migrants, we're told, present a crisis for Europe—untold thousands trek over dusty trails from Syria, or put themselves at the mercy of the Mediterranean as they set out from North Africa on rafts and other uncertain craft. I don't much care for the term "migrant," though: it implies something like choice, that the sufferings of these people are somehow their own fault, and reduces the moral urgency of the situation. Journalist Barry Malone gets at the truth of the matter when he writes:
The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative. It is not hundreds of people who drown when a boat goes down in the Mediterranean, nor even hundreds of refugees. It is hundreds of migrants. It is not a person – like you, filled with thoughts and history and hopes – who is on the tracks delaying a train. It is a migrant. A nuisance.
What we really have is a crisis, not of migrants, but of refugees. What can poetry do, in a time of such crisis? The question probably seems absurd to the more practical-minded, but it haunts poets at times like these. W.H. Auden addressed an earlier era's troubles in "Refugee Blues," a poem about Jewish refugees in the time of fascism, and Chinua Achebe's "Refugee Mother and Child" spoke to a crisis closer to our own time.

My own poor, best effort, came from the Yugoslav wars of the nineties, when I was living in Europe:

Poem for a War Poet, Poem for a War

The lines inked on the map are railways and roads.
The lines on the road are refugees, and moving.
The lines inked on the page are a poem, your poem.
            While you are singing, who will carry your burden?

The lines on the page are a poem, words
that move toward the refugees, their tattered world
of hurt and proper names, their lost, their staggering.
            While you are singing, while you are singing.

The lines are helpless in this time of war.  They survive,
if they are a poem, in valleys of saying, they survive
and reach for valleys where bodies cough, bleed, or stumble blind.

They survive while you are singing.
            While you are singing. 

The lines on the road are refugees,
Their paths are marked with ink, charted
on a General’s table.  Your lines are a poem.
            While you are singing, who will carry your burden?

A woman bends beneath her load, a young man stutters in his fear,
a guard at the valley’s border lets them through,
or not.  Your lines are a poem.
            Who will carry your burden

I am a great believer in poetry, and know what it has done for me and for others I care about. But I am also a believer in these words, from an anonymous editorial in the Arab American News:
The photo of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian child who drowned and washed on the shores of Turkey, has inspired volumes of poetry and sympathy. But words and tears will not help the people of Syria. Actions are needed by all governments— including ours— which considers itself the leading force in the free world. 
The United Nations has a fund for aid to refugees. Help if you can.