Almost four years ago I was invited to join illustrator Jane Ray at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants in the art and writing class. We needed to work across language, history, religion, culture, conflict, trauma and uprootedness and it was my instinct to open the communal listening ear, to build word-hoards and make poetry together.
Each week we read the poems we have jointly created. For those who have lost almost everything, the poem becomes a powerful symbol of voices being heard and respected.
In our class, refugee people with unimaginably fractured lives settle together in a rare moment of stillness. We focus on a painting of a flower, fruit, bird, feather, leaf or tree, and together we struggle to express the complexity of our journeys, our hopes and dreams.
Poetry is our means of painting in words. The ache for humane treatment finds its force again and again through the portal of art and poetry.
For National Poetry Day, a poem from our class – illustrated by Axel Scheffler – has been selected to support the Families Together campaign and recorded in the voice of one of the contributing poets. This takes the power of poetry a step further. We are hearing directly from the voices of refugee people telling us what it means to be denied the right to live with our families.
As a child my first writing instinct found voice in poetry, which possessed an almost magical, transformative force. Poetry had a charge for me: it was the place for words that burned in me to be expressed.
I heard poetry in birdsong and wild weather, in the surge of waterfalls and in the voices of people in my family. They spoke in many languages – including English – with distinct idiom, dialects and accents. I often tell young readers that my ear for language, love of playing with words and my quest for the superpower of empathy stemmed from the cross-cultural poetics I was exposed to as a child.
I am proud to be an Amnesty Ambassador and never forget the power that freedom of speech gives each and every one of us. For refugee people – whose voices and freedoms have been denied – to know that your dream to be reunited with your family has touched people’s hearts enough to call for a change in the law is truly powerful.
Claims that the arts can be truly transformative are often made, but hard to prove. It’s our hope that this poem written by refugee people will be heard by the communal ear and contribute to making a change that will bring families together.
Sita Brahmachari is Writer in Residence at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants.