The sky was weeping twilight and sunrise the day Amani and I became friends; we built this friendship on sweet biscuits and time spent waiting for her mama and my papa and all the other Somali refugees in upper rooms. We were too young and unaware to know that, above us, asylum-seekers were slowly becoming bilingual.
I met Amani’s mama that day. She had come downstairs to find her little girl wrapped up in the arms of this one blue-eyed kid, the great, great-granddaughter of Irish immigrants. Her hands, soothing and worn, had reached out to me. I mostly remember her eyes; they were so tired and alive.
I marvel at her resolve whenever I think of her. She reminds me of a history of refugee mothers who, despite having experienced unspeakable horrors, still chose to believe that one day they would have the chance to bring their children home.
In her highly acclaimed poetic response to the refugee crisis, Warsan Shire gives voice to humanness. For Shire, “Home” is as encompassing as it is personal. After receiving the Brunel University African Poetry Prize, the poet spoke intimately about the universality and devastation of war and displacement:
I’m from Somalia where there has been a war going on for my entire life. I grew up with a lot of horror in the backdrop—a lot of terrible things that have happened to people who are really close to me, and to my country, and to my parents; so it’s in the home and it’s even in you, it’s on your skin and it’s in your memories and your childhood.
The world has always been a place for the displaced; it is reaching round as if it were more than just earth-dirt and space. The plight of the refugee is nothing new. Millions of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons have been displaced throughout history due to racial animosities, warfare, disease, famine, political unrest and religious hostility. “Home” embodies this by speaking to a truth that exceeds both time and ethnicity in its focus on the refugee-experience—our refugee crisis. Behind the statistics are the people longing to be remembered, sought-out and welcomed home.
We are a generation that bears witness to the tragedies in Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia, Indonesia, Armenia—the list continues to the far-and-often-unreached corners of the earth. The beginning of Shire’s poem reads “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark,” and continues by examining the unthinkable choices refugee parents make in their desperation not only to survive, but also to protect their children. Towards the climax of the poem, the young Nairobi-born, London-raised poet writes:
you have to understand
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
This aphorism speaks to both the refugee and the reader. “Home” is as much an expression of refugee desperation as it is a call to respond. Mothers and fathers are risking ‘the water’—the salt-waves and sinking, the squeezing-in between skin and bone, the rough boat-wood and stronger sea—to protect their children. They are leaving behind ‘the land’ and its security in an effort to escape death.
I think of Amani and the night she snuggled up so close to me it was as if we were twin sisters, human radiators of warmth and belonging. I was not there when her mama lifted her into the boat and climbed aboard. I do not know how often her eyes were shielded from the sight of retching men and women clinging to the side of the vessel. I was too young to know the reality of this but, in that moment as I cradled Amani in my arms, her lips parted like a little bird, I was as desperate to love her as her mama had been to protect her from all the things I did not yet understand about war.
I think I am beginning to comprehend what it was I felt that night; the grace of our humanness connecting refugees, immigrants, expats and natives. The Middle Eastern, African, Asian, European-descended North American; we are all mirrors of familiarity to one another.
We are a whole world of people watching and waiting for the beautiful belonging to emerge from brokenness. The kind of belonging that compels us to brave the waves and, with every bit of home within us, beckon the children of the earth closer.