“you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land”
Poetry: a multifaceted feat used to give human thought a body. With this vessel, it can transcend geographical borders and travel the world. Words have the power to be uniquely interpreted based on personal struggles, societal expectations, religion, and morals.
In this respect, Warsan Shire’s poem Home resonates not only through continents, but also through centuries. Shire’s tercet excerpt takes many life forms through the eyes of the reader and the viewpoint they decide to adopt.
In this exploration, I have decided to read the excerpt through my own eyes and tackle the modern day issues this poem so poignantly raises.
I moved to Germany a year ago. In 2015, Angela Merkel’s Wilkommenspolitik saw the mass influx of migrants from all over the world. Moving somewhere so cosmopolitan after spending fifteen years in the same white-dominated town exposed me to a diverse way of life. I met people that have both emulated and obliterated stereotypes that had been integrated into my system. It was refreshing.
One such person I met was a Syrian man; roughly the same age as me, multilingual, and hardworking. And he has experienced a life I could just hope that I would never have to live.
Normality was in the ‘before the war’ part of his life. But that is what war does: it splits; it tears things apart. Time. Families. Even human beings themselves.
He was just a child when he saw guns being fired. He was just a child when he saw someone being murdered in front of him. He was just a child when his family fled their home.
And he was just a child when his parents paid thousands of Euros on three occasions to put him on a boat.
He now lives in Germany. With some small mercy, his mother also got through. But he has not seen his father for three years. He has not seen his older brother for five.
The water is never the first choice. Water is filled with lost hopes and lost bodies. But the land is hopeless.
Two years ago, the Syrian Centre for Policy Research estimated that the murder toll of the Syrian Civil War ringed at 470,000. 8,500 people have reportedly died at sea since the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi in 2015.
The sea will always remain a place for lost graves. The waves will always cover truths. The current will always pull people down to cradle them in its depths. But it is safer than a land where both sides will try to kill you.
The people of Syria are not the only refugees that have escaped persecution by fleeing via the sea. Operation Hannibal – the flight of over 800,000 German civilians and 350,000 German soldiers from East Prussia across the Baltic Sea in the course of fifteen weeks in early 1945 – bore witness to one of the largest naval evacuations in history. The Red Army slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children from 1944 till the end of the war. The Red Army, in the 3,300 separate locations that the Federal Archives have access to, murdered 120,000 German civilians.
On the 30th January 1945, a Soviet submarine fired three torpedoes at the Wilhelm Gustloff, a passenger liner carrying over 8,000 people. Over three quarters of these passengers were refugees (the majority being women and children)… a mere eighth survived.
We do not question these Europeans their right to flee death. We do not question these Europeans their right to live. After an age of being forcibly placed on boats and taken away from their homes, why are non-Europeans being punished for fighting for the exact same thing as people in 1945 did? They fought for their freedom; they fought for their chance to survive.
In conclusion, Shire’s poem reflects societal issues that I see on a daily basis. I have been fortunate enough to meet people from all over the world – from Turkey, Namibia, China, Brazil, Iran, Russia, and many others – through my language school. One day, the teacher asked us if we have ever experienced any racial challenges. I was the only one who had not. Everyone else had been openly mocked and criticised in public when speaking their mother tongue. Everyone… except me.
Shire’s utilisation of the imperative “you have to understand” symbolises the essence of the excerpt’s tone. It is not a plea for empathy; for me, its message is more along the lines of ‘how could you not understand?”. For a continent that boarded ships to colonise countries and cultures into ruin, I would expect more compassion for people boarding rubber dinghies in the hopes of their children living a life free from war, starvation, and massacre. Or just living a life at all.