Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

We Refugees by Benjamin Zephaniah

Afghanistan children
When I was reading some new poems recently, I was struck by how this one showed the universality of people displaced from their homeland. The news reports make refugees into a problem to be dealt with and seldom do we consider their desperation and individual stories. We Refugees has a first person narrator and an almost musical rhythm, so while it deals with serious subjects, it is not full of doom and gloom. There is a tone of regret, thoughts of what is lost and a tiny glimmer of hopefulness that a return could be possible at some point. The narrator could be any age or gender, actually, though my first impression was of a young person. They appear to be from Afghanistan, though it’s never named, but there are references to “a sunny, sandy place” “where girls cannot go to school” and “even young boys must grow beards”. The first part of the poem is a contrast between how the culture and the land itself has changed, the lush forest which is now a field and the dangers of music.
The most poignant part of the poem is the middle:
“We can all be refugees
Nobody is safe,
All it takes is a mad leader
Or no rain to bring forth food,
We can all be refugees
We can all be told to go…”
It points out how random and out of our control circumstances can be that creates refugees. And how timeless, too. The very places that are refusing people now were once full of people fleeing themselves not so long ago.
The end of the poem shows how the narrator is viewed by others:
“I am told I have no country now
I am told I am a lie”
This is how refugees are looked at, as a statistic, not as individual, as if their identity is erased, their family ties and names forgotten from both their homeland and the new places where they seek asylum. The final lines reiterate how it is just luck or good fortune which prevents others from facing a similar situation and offers a wish that those listening to the narrator will understand the connections that we all have, just by being human.
I was shocked that the author was not a refugee himself, but rather a man of Jamaican descent who grew up in the UK. He’s received numerous honors for his writings as both poet and novelist and is an activist for Amnesty International and animal rights organizations. This poem is not the only foray into the issue, his novel Refugee Boy was published in 2001 and follows the journey of a boy affected by events in Ethiopia. It is the mark of a gifted writer who can convey the emotions and experiences that they have not experienced and this poem does it splendidly.

To read the whole poem, please go to this page at Poem Hunter- We Refugees

Photo of children welcoming spring is from the Tumblr page Afghanistan in Photos by Bahar Aaamad

6 comments on “We Refugees by Benjamin Zephaniah

  1. camilledefleurville
    September 23, 2015

    I do like your weekly theme. Europe (and I do not mean EU only but Europe as a continent) is facing a crisis that was already foreviewed in the 1970s and could have been tackled very differently and with more human feelings towards refugees if people like Michel Foucault had been listened to in good time.

    It is in the order of things that the 21st century is a century of great migration what with climatic changes, poverty, exlotation from rich counries of poor countries, plus their selling weapons.

    Now, my family (I am 22 with little experience!) has been faced with refugees from Rwanda some years ago, and the procedure was frightening for French educated and socially “easy” people. Therefore what could it have been and what can it be for foreign people who do not speak the language of the country and are handled and handed about like parcels? And not like individuals and human beings?

    This is one of the many examples of dehumansation of the Western civilisation and society. Thank you for bringing it forwards to our eyes.

    Thank you to bring forwards the beautiful:
    “We can all be refugees
    We can all be told to go…”

    Thank you for this week, for these blogs and THIS blog. I shall certainly try to read the authors you are talking about.

  2. Mary Smith
    September 23, 2015

    It’s a great poem – and truly universal.

  3. camilledefleurville
    September 23, 2015

    I find your week about refugees both important and tackled under an interesting angle, and tact. I thought the best thing to express my “sisterhood” with you was to mention your blog in mine and to publish the whole in my reading groups and on my FB page. Here is the link (with large extracts from Kte’s introductory entry on Sunday):

  4. Vivvie
    September 24, 2015

    Thank you for sharing this poem!
    These lines
    “I am told I have no country now
    I am told I am a lie”
    have touched me deeply.

  5. carols44C
    September 24, 2015

    This is how well Benjamin Zephania writes and shows his big heart. My friend has contributed a wonderful poem to this site:

  6. Pingback: About Vulpes Libris and Refugees (bis) | Sketches and Vignettes from la Dordogne

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This entry was posted on September 23, 2015 by in Entries by Jackie, Non-fiction: current affairs, Non-fiction: history, Poetry: 21st Century and tagged , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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