One of the many ways we encourage survivors of torture to heal is through creativity.
Past trauma can make it difficult to communicate how one feels, but poetry is a fantastic bridge for recovery and understanding.
We have collected six poems which reflect a variety of personal experiences depicting what it’s like to be a refugee.
We have displayed four poems from our group Write to Life and two poems from external authors.
What is Write to Life?
Write to Life is a creative writing and performance group that supports our current and former clients to tell stories through art forms.
It is the longest-running refugee-writing group in Britain, and the only one specifically for survivors of torture.
The most amazing thing about writing is that, with only a pen and paper, you can open up a boundless universe of the imagination; a place to nurture yourself with joy, jokes, beauty or just your own listening ear. For people like the writers in our group, often penniless, unable to work and in a dreadful prison of isolation and paralysis while they await the outcome of their asylum claim, this is a lifeline.
Write to Life members have collaborated with world-class institutions like The Roundhouse, Tate Galleries and the British and Victoria and Albert Museums. Over the years, they have built up an impressive body of work.
Here’s a selection.
Write to Life poems
My Lone Soldier
I wrote this because my husband was a soldier. We met at university and this poem is about when he was killed. When I joined Freedom from Torture, I didn’t want to open up about these bad experiences because of the torture I went through – my three children, husband, Dad and twin sister were all killed– but when I wrote this poem I felt more at peace. I have been a member of Write to Life since 2001. It has changed a lot but we are always there like a family. When it is Wednesday, we look forward to a good time and good food. The group has grown since I have been involved – I say the bigger the better!
My Lone Soldier by Jade
You have been my best friend and my love since we met
You were clever in class,
And your ambition was to join the army
Your beady eyes pierce my heart like an arrow
Your unkempt beard scratches my soft cheeks
I think it is a while since
You had a proper bath
So lie still and let me scrub your whole body
Let me wash your long hair
Barber, please shave off his hair and beard
Which have become a breeding ground for lice
Your lovely white teeth have
Become yellow, chipped and broken
Oh dentist, make his teeth white again
At least for the one month he is home
I will cook nice meals for him
To cover his hollow eyes and scrawny neck
His ribs are sticking out like tree branches
He has no stomach except wrinkled skin
His bottom is skin and bone
Two stick-like legs and ten skeletal fingers
No meat on the bones
Where has the flesh gone?
Hunger has eaten all his brawn
So let me cook for him
Good meals for the days he is home with me.
His cheeks are plump again
For the three weeks he has been home
I have fed him well
He has a good haircut and well shaven beard
His smile shows white teeth again
The ribs are in hiding
He is sturdy now
Today my lone soldier
Is going to the end of another world
Bye my love, he said
I will be back soon
Look after yourself
And you too, I said
Tears finding their way out of my eyes
He turned to go
Army bag on his back
His heavy shoes
And his company
Away in the distance
Oh my lone soldier
Come back soon
This Matter by Haymanot
("This matter occupied the time of the Court from 10.20 a.m. to 10.28 a.m.")
Eight minutes they gave
for the light of me
to be switched on or switched off.
But that was O.K..
All that was on the agenda
was my small past,
my small future -
only a bangle of handcuffs
that suited my tiny hands;
only being dragged by the arms
so it polished the lucky airport floor
and saved me walking;
only three times staying
behind the eleven locked doors
of my holiday home.
I cried every day
but it wasn't too bad.
My tears cleaned my cheeks.
Eight minutes they gave.
For those who want to be heard by others, poetry has a particular power. Its emotional force is concentrated into a few essential words, and the rocket fuel of longing, hope or anger can be sheathed with the seductive beauty of language and imagery. These two elements together may seduce readers who would run a mile from a rant or an op-ed, dissolving their defences into simple human empathy.
My Brain is an Immigrant
It was very interesting to go to the Tate; you can learn many things from different kinds of pictures. In one of them, there was a woman with her children, so beautifully dressed, from the olden days, but inside her I could see she was empty.
But there were other pictures, of people who looked angry or sad, and then this picture of a brain; it reminded me of anxiety so I wrote about my own brain as an asylum seeker.
I felt like I went to my family when I went to Freedom from Torture; it gave me strength and comfort; I felt free and confident. Now I have moved on – the group gave me the power to see the future and be someone. To have a life, moving forward. Before, I felt lonely and sad; I didn’t see a future. I could not have gone and achieved my future without your support and that of many people in the organisation who understood our pain and our problems. Even today, with my own family and no longer coming to Write to Life. I still feel helped.
My Brain is an Immigrant By Senait Hagose
My mind can travel anywhere
Across the ocean, across dry land
Past, present and future
No traffic lights or mind the gap
No one can stop me moving.
My eyes can see the un-seeable
My ears can hear the un-hearable
My hands can touch the invisible.
I think non-stop.
More bad, less good.
Fear, flashback, scared, hopeless,
Sometimes I see no future.
This is my immigrant mind.
Out of Love
I am a survivor of torture from Turkey and I wrote the poem below with Write To Life, in 2006 in Devon. It was one of the most productive weeks of my life. There, I could observe and feel the first days of the coming spring on a farm, in the countryside; and I was with ten other members of the group there. My eyes were foggy and tearful watching the scenery; green grass, trembling cold flowers in unreachable corners outside, a rivulet nearby and the open horizon beyond. And our teachers, who opened our eyes to thinking about art; they helped us to write whatever we felt and thought, without hesitation.
Thanks to them indeed.
After working in the social housing sector for a couple of years, I completed a part time Housing Studies degree at London Southbank University in 2010. Having had two children since then, I am a full-time mother now.
Out of Love - Ozgur
I don’t like to look at the world
through foggy eyes
as if everything could become
a chapter in a long poem.
I am not in love with
every small creature on this farm
whatever they are;
birds, small untamed flowers on the edge of a small rivulet,
the unresting breeze,
clinging to the trees and to the slender leaves,
chasing right into the secret crannies
on the ground.
I don’t have time to watch the dense mud,
shaped by a tractor wheel,
next to the garden gate,
which is turning into shining brown
day by day.
I shan’t even remember, when I return to city,
what is missing in my life.
Coordinating Write to Life is a huge privilege, and over the years I and my fellow mentors have learned how to design workshops that inspire and engage the group at a deep level but never force them to revisit experiences they have put behind them, or are not yet ready to revisit. It's a delicate balancing act, but always fascinating, and the results speak for themselves.
Home, by Warsan Shire (British-Somali poet)
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 neighbours running faster
than you, 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 would leave home unless home
chased you, fire under feet,
hot blood in your belly.
it's not something you ever thought about
doing, and so when you did -
you carried the anthem under your breath,
waiting until the airport toilet
to tear up the passport and swallow,
each mouthful of paper making it clear that
you would not be going back.
you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey
Refuge by JJ Bola
imagine how it feels to be chased out of home. to have your grip ripped. loosened from your fingertips something you so dearly held on to. like a lovers hand that slips when pulled away you are always reaching.
my father would speak of home. reaching. speaking of familiar faces. girl next door
who would eventually grow up to be my mother. the fruit seller at the market. the lonely man at the top of the road who nobody spoke to. and our house at the bottom of the street
lit up by a single flickering lamp
where beyond was only darkness. there
they would sit and tell stories
of monsters that lurked and came only at night to catch the children who sat and listened to stories of monsters that lurked.
this is how they lived. each memory buried.
an artefact left to be discovered by archaeologists. the last words on a dying
family member’s lips. this was sacred.
not even monsters could taint it.
but there were monsters that came during the day. monsters that tore families apart
with their giant hands. and fingers that slept on triggers. the sound of gunshots ripping through the sky became familiar like the tapping of rain fall on a window sill.
monster that would kill and hide behind speeches, suits and ties. monsters that would chase families away forcing them to leave everything behind.
i remember when we first stepped off the plane. everything was foreign. unfamiliar. uninviting. even the air in my lungs left me short of breath.
we came here to find refuge. they called us refugees so we hid ourselves in their language until we sounded just like them. changed the way we dressed to look just like them.
made this our home until we lived just like them and began to speak of familiar faces. girl next door who would grow up to be a
mother. the fruit seller at the market.
the lonely man at the top of the road
who nobody spoke to. and our house at the bottom of the street lit up by a single flickering lamp to keep away the darkness.
there we would sit and watch police that lurked and came only at night to arrest the youths who sat and watched police that lurked and came only at night. this is how we lived.
i remember one day i heard them say to me
they come here to take our jobs
they need to go back to where they came from
not knowing that i was one of the ones who came. i told them that a refugee is simply
someone who is trying to make a home.
so next time when you go home, tuck your children in and kiss your families goodnight be glad that the monsters
never came for you.
in their suits and ties.
never came for you.
in the newspapers with the media lies.
never came for you.
that you are not despised.
and know that deep inside the hearts of each and every one of us
we are all always reaching for a place that we can call home.
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