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.
My Lone Soldier by Jade
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
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
Solidarity by Tanya
Women clothed in their leader’s regalia
Men, adorned in T-shirts with the leader’s face on their broad chests.
The volume of their voices singing songs
Praise, adoration, appreciation and dedication could be heard miles away.
Milk and honey, they sang.
No matter how badly the weeds had grown in the fields,
People dropped everything to be there,
To attend the rally and listen first-hand.
Some carried cockerels, goats, baskets full of eggs,
Or vegetables to give to the heroes who had fought and brought us freedom.
We loved them, our heroes.
Nobody wanted anyone to cough or whisper,
Nobody wanted to miss a single word.
We worshipped them like gods.
Worshipping the ground they walked on.
We became very close,
Following everywhere they went, to show our solidarity.
Then things began to change.
It came to me in an instance.
I had bought a new cup from a second-hand shop
When I lifted it up to the sunlight, I couldn’t see any flaws.
When I got home, I decided to christen it with a cup of tea.
But the moment I poured the boiling water, it cracked down the middle.
It came to me in an instance: what was happening in our country.
Everything looked perfect, all the words they said,
But something was very wrong.
Meetings held in secret,
People began to attend less and less.
Chiefs were threatened:
Villagers needed to attend, or food aid would be withdrawn.
The threats became more frequent
And then the militia used their force.
Gates were shut, and militia manned them:
People could come in, but no one could leave
Even if you had medical problems.
Then came the public flogging
Of those who had deserted.
Brutal! It was brutal.
All our hopes, dreams shattered.
All we wanted was to have our voices heard.
To build the country as one.
But all was denied.
We had been in solidarity with them for a long time.
Now they were stabbing us and maiming all those who dared to oppose.
All we had wanted,
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.
- Sheila Hayman, Write to Life Coordinator
Owning the last decade by Marsha
Own your salt & pepper hair,
Damaged cuticles, and bruised hands.
Own your seasonal depression,
frowning to the bright and shiny mornings.
Own checking hourly weather app forecast,
Your growing taste for marmite toast.
Own your disappointment over
The muddy Thames River.
Own rolling your eyes to the waving hands
From the top of hop-on-off buses in central.
Own your weekly visit to the charity shops,
Own your adaptation to the parky weather.
Own your huffing and puffing over “heatwaves”.
(Maybe you, like me, arrived from a tropical delta ten years ago)
Own your persistent effort to indulge
The happy and angry drunks on long weekends,
The rude and spoiled teenage herds stomping
During school holidays.
Own your serenity over the abundant greens in the North,
Crossing roads on the sight of flashing amber lights.
Own becoming a stoic Londoner,
Own your life of the last decade.
Time by Nalougo
In the midst of the succession of events and phenomena
inaccurate chronometer, which deceives us
We can neither see it, nor smell it, nor touch it
neither direct nor modify it
It runs and leaves us no reprieve
no right of appeal
It flees like a bird in the night
flows through our fingers like liquid
Assassin, it kills each successive day
It goes too fast
It's like money
when we give it to one place, we can't give it to another
But it gives us one advantage: the privilege of age
happiness comes by
love takes root
wisdom is acquired
with the passage of time
It is often said, 'Let's give time to time' .
But we always forget to ask,
is there any time to give?
We only have a handful of sand left to live our life
by doing good deeds with joy and happiness
So, let's take advantage of the time that has been gifted us
Marvel at the world around us
before life catches up with us, and fills us with regret
I had a voice by Shahab
I had a voice, when silence robbed me in court
When silence soaked my four-walled darkness.
I had a voice, until the judge's gavel knocked twice: 'Be silent!'
Silence didn’t know, without my voice
silence was meaningless.
The echo of my stare, as it faded
irritated an old wound
pushing out clotting blood
as hopeful as hop blossoms, seeding in the crack of a wall,
playing hide and seek as they emerge.
My voice, hoarse from the lash of interrogation, didn't tremble
while the whisper of a lash shook the voices of others.
When your voice, harsh with hubris, deafens all inhabitants
Nothing stops me, dancing to the music of the lash.
When your voice germinates from silence
I am reminded of my own voice, rediscovered in suburbia.
How naive we are,
Waiting in the empty and deserted train station, for absurd sounds.
How are good voices supposed to flourish?
How many grievances do I have against our time?
Oh, leave it!
Liminality by Haydeh
The Moon rises above the surrounding, shiny stars
Not to compete with the Sun
But to allow it to rest.
Your face can feel droplets of rain
Not falling from the sky just for you
But to refresh the earth’s flower petals.
The river moves and is constant
Not to make a noise or shake the pebbles underneath
But to travel far and reach the sea.
The birds sing in Spring
Not for one to listen in admiration
But to sing freely and unleash their feelings.
Clouds move closer together
Hold tight, accumulate in masses
Not to survive,
But in changing to rain
And complete their job.
Bees fly between flowers
Choosing them with precision, meticulously
To make the best honey they can.
Are we doing the best we can?