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The Poem That Travelled the World

Sometimes a poem has the freedom to travel from mouth to mouth, page to page, screen to screen, and arrive at places the poet has neither been to or even imagined.

This is the case with Warsan Shire’s poem ‘Home’, one of the poems we will explore in the upcoming course ‘The bravest people on earth’: On Displacement.

‘No one puts their children on a boat

unless the water is safer than the land’.

These powerful lines have appeared in videos, on stage, and on protest posters; no doubt because of how vividly they illustrate the plight of refugees at a time when there are more displaced people around the world than ever before.

An article in The Guardian explains the origin and development of Shire’s world-travelling poem:

[Shire] first drafted another poem about the refugee experience “Conversations about home (at a deportation centre)” in 2009 after spending time with a group of young refugees who had fled troubled homelands including Somalia, Eritrea, Congo and Sudan. The group gave a ‘warm’ welcome to Shire in their makeshift home at the abandoned Somali Embassy in Rome, she explains, describing the conditions as cold and cramped. The night before she visited, a young Somali had jumped off the roof to his death. The encounter, she says, opened her eyes to the harsh reality of living as an undocumented refugee in Europe: ‘I wrote the poem for them, for my family and for anyone who has experienced or lived around grief and trauma in that way.’

Little did she know at the time she wrote ‘Home’ that her poem would soon journey far and wide, ‘floating around the strange streets of the internet,’ as she calls them, and become a ‘rallying call for refugees.’ Below are just some of the many places where ‘Home’ can be found.

Verses from ‘Home’ were tweeted by a Member of U.K. Parliament:

They appeared on posters in US protests from Seattle to DC against President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which impacts refugees:

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch included them in a video for a charity, and also read them on stage at the Barbican in London where he was starring in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Shire’s lines were even used as a headline for an article about the death of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee toddler found on the shores of Turkey after drowning in the Mediterranean Sea with other members of his family.

Part of the undeniable strength of Shire’s poem can be found in the line that seems to have been quoted most: ‘home is the mouth of a shark’. Within the poem, the speaker meanders from land to sea, from deserts to cities, from airports to boats, depicting with these back-and-forth movements how a refugee’s travels are often marked by continual displacement. The ‘mouth of a shark’ is an especially stark image that goes hand-in-hand with the earlier lines about water being ‘safer than the land’. The deadly threat of the predator’s gaping mouth effectively communicates the dangers at home which force refugees to take risks such as travelling in boats across the Mediterranean, as was the case of Kurdi’s family and so many others who likely knew they and their loved ones could drown while trying to reach safety.

On our upcoming course, we will read and listen to poems about and by refugees from all over the world, and reflect on how the art form can impact the way people around the world view refugees.

Listen to Shire’s full poem below, and read more about the workshop here.

Book here for Natasha Hakimi Zapata’s online course “The bravest people on earth”: On Displacement, running as part of our Spring Term 2020.

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