Poems without Borders: Writing To Bear Witness

Bridging Borders with Words: Writing with Immigrant and Refugee Students

This article is part of a series in Teachers & Writers Magazine on working with immigrant and refugee writers. Other pieces includeSusan Karwoska’s interviews with and poems written by high school students recently arrived in the US, Sarah Dohrmann’s poetry lesson plans for engaging immigrant students, Margot Galt’s reflections on teaching Somali immigrants in Minnesota, and Jan-Henry Gray’s recommendations on Better Advocacy for Undocumented Students. You may also be interested in Wynne Kontos’ interview with 2018 Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning about how she creates a refuge and community in her classroom.

by Merna Ann Hecht

When it became widely known that the Trump administration’s family separation policy would result in lifelong and generational trauma for thousands of children and their families, I decided to follow through with a plan I had been considering for months, which was to seek out more humane approaches for asylum seekers. I chose Berlin and Athens, knowing that both cities had absorbed a significant portion of the 2015 surge of asylum seekers fleeing Syria’s Civil War, along with a continual flow of refugees from other countries where violent conflicts put survival on the line. I knew that numerous NGOs in each city had established innovative programs for refugees—not “charities” but thoughtful approaches designed to give asylum seekers a sense of agency and belonging. I hoped that by volunteering in several of these programs, I would return to the US with renewed energy and perspective for my own teaching and for joining continued efforts to work for immigrant and refugee rights.

The past nine years I’ve spent as founder, co-director, and teaching artist in the Stories of Arrival: Refugee and Immigrant Youth Voices Poetry Project have deepened my understanding of complex immigration issues. The high school students in this project, located in Washington State, share the experience of finding themselves in untenable situations not of their own making. They are among millions of young people worldwide who have experienced ruptures in stability and security. Their stories and poems reflect how the physical displacement of forced migration is often accompanied by a sense of intense emotional dislocation. Witnessing my students’ struggles and the courage they have had to summon to deal with the things they’ve experienced has intensified my dismay over family separation. This inhumane policy furthers the damage and feelings of betrayal children and youth have suffered as a result of war, poverty, climate change, persecution, and violence.

Through the Stories of Arrival project, I have come to believe in the power of writing that tells these stories of grief and resilience. The stories my students write offer a window into struggles that are difficult for many of us to imagine. They are the stories and voices we need to hear if we are to create informed, humane policies around immigration. Yet at this present moment, propaganda and fear mongering seem to dominate the conversation, attempting to persuade us that walls and closed borders are needed to keep us safe. This rhetoric deepens the divisions among us and silences already marginalized voices from telling us stories about the very decency and humanity we stand to lose. 

Before my departure, I read through each year of the Stories of Arrival poetry anthologies to select poems for the workshops I would present in Europe. I was startled anew by the hard-won wisdom that treacherous border crossings and wrenching separations continue to demand of young people. I combined stanzas from the project’s earliest years up to the present to create a kind of mosaic of young refugee and immigrant voices to bring with me.

Her childhood was a smeared painting
she ran from it, who wouldn’t run from the noise
of gunshots, the feeling of loneliness.

A man’s voice shouts at my parents,
telling them “if you don’t open the door,
we will shoot it open!”
We have no choice. They run in and take everything.
We barely manage to escape.

A person with a dream that leaves war behind him
misses his country, but is relieved
for leaving the place of war,
that person has a broken heart
but still wants to live.

When I think of that day
that I could not find my family,
I was tired of screaming
and the shaking of my whole body,
it was getting dark and darker,
still I could not find my family.

I didn’t want to stay, but I couldn’t go back,
I tried to leave, but there was nowhere to go,
It was like jail, but I knew how to live with it,
because I lived long enough there to survive.
But I missed my mother and my country,
if my mother was here, I wouldn’t need anything,
I just don’t know how to live without my mother.

I hoped these voices would resonate with the asylum seekers I was to meet half a world away.

Athens Poetry Workshops for Women: The Greek Forum of Refugees

I arrived in Athens after a month in Berlin, where I had volunteered for an NGO program with refugee children called Pass the Crayon. I was delighted to add several storytelling and creative dramatics sessions into this brilliantly conceived expressive arts program.

In Athens, I was invited by an NGO called the Greek Forum of Refugees to present a small poetry workshop for the all-women’s HART program, (HAnds on Refugees Talent.) The participants were mainly asylum seekers from Afghanistan, skilled in creating traditional textiles.

I began the workshop with lines from Bracha Serri’s poem “Thread by Thread.” The women listened intently to each translated line as they stitched and embroidered: Thread by thread / ribbon by ribbon / we stitch together torn hearts to bind the map of peace. We embroider in hope / with a sisterhood of women / a map of love / to tear down the borders. As they listened to Serri’s words, I saw the women’s eyes meet in common understanding. Through the translator, each woman expressed her wish to “embroider hope” in her own way, with her own colored threads of peace. Yet I struggled then, as I do now, to let the moments of close community and hope suffice as complete in themselves, in a world where so much remains torn apart. This feeling was accentuated because of an unexpected encounter before the workshop began.

When I arrived for the HART workshop, the woman who was expecting me was nowhere to be seen.  After a long wait in the foyer, a staff member told me she was on her way and relayed the message that while waiting, “I should work with Tamara in the cave.”

I found Tamara at her desk in the large, shared office space for the Greek Forum of Refugees, where she works as a cultural liaison. I told her we were to talk “in the cave” which was a tiny, windowless space with a desk taking up most of the room. Tamara sat behind the desk and I pulled up a chair facing her.

Initially, I wondered what had prompted the woman who ran the HART program to suggest this meeting. I soon found out. Within minutes, I learned that Tamara’s mother was Greek and her father was Syrian, thus her fluency in both languages. Her English was also excellent. She told me about her large, extended Syrian family with whom she had lovingly spent every summer until the war broke out.

Along with the poems created by my students in the US, I had included a concrete poem written in the shape of Syria from the novel, The Map of Salt and Stars. Simply looking at the shape brought Tamara to tears. I realized that for her, the poem was not simply a geographical image but a powerful visual picture of war and loss. She told me that her Syrian family “was lucky because they only lost ten.” I quietly asked if this included children. “Of course,” she responded. In that moment, I tucked away the thought that has come up many times since, how the scale of civilian deaths is so huge, that “only ten” can seem “lucky.”

Tamara continued, telling me about the one poem she had written in 2013, dedicated to her cousin Hadeed, who was four months pregnant when she drowned in a shipwreck while fleeing Syria. Hadeed’s two-year-old son survived but was not reunited with his father until months later when the two of them were located in different refugee camps hundreds of miles apart.

I asked Tamara if she could speak to the world about the war in Syria and about Syrian refugees, what she would like to say. She answered without hesitation, “I would tell everyone not to be afraid of us—that Muslims are not to be feared, that we want peace, that we are people of peace.”

Tamara’s words were very similar to those I recalled from a young woman named Rama, a student in our most recent Stories of Arrival project. I read a portion of Rama’s bio statement to Tamara:

Rama is a Muslim believer and her religion is part of her identity. Today she is worried about what is going on in the world because there are people who rely on the name of Islam to commit foolish actions to destroy the truth and beauty of Islam. However, in reality, Islam is a religion of peace and of solidarity.

I also showed Tamara another page from the project anthology with Rama’s beautifully rendered drawing of a mosque, accompanied by a poem about her mother’s continual annoyance with her because she often overslept instead of arising for dawn prayers in the Mosque. Tamara smiled in recognition, saying, “Oh yes, that’s exactly like me and my mom.”  Linked across borders through their words, these two young Muslim women were able to share their hopes for peace and global understanding.

The next day when I returned to meet again with Tamara, she read the poem she had written after our meeting. Her images of ruin for a country once beloved by its people are a litany of loss beyond what most of us can imagine, yet they invite us to pause and hold the sorrow.

“The Days Go By”
by Tamara Halbouni

The days go by,
they go by so fearlessly,
passing over her shoulder,
and yet she doesn’t recognize herself
in the mirror, only bones and lies,
soulless eyes, and a frozen mouth.

Daughter of hopelessness and betrayal,
the title she gives to herself,
she would drown everyone she loves
into her eternal abyss. 

She tried to escape, to fight back,
but the route was already planned
for her, by others.

An empty corpse is all that’s left,
now that the mirror is broken,
she lies dead with pale face
and an empty stare.

She needed love and freedom,
but she could not have them.
Her name was Syria.

Poetry Workshop for Solidarity Now

The following week, I presented a poetry workshop I had arranged with an NGO called Solidarity Now. The fourteen women gathered at the table had arrived in Greece from many of the same home countries as the young people in the Stories of Arrival project, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Their children met in a play space that shared the room.

I began the workshop with a poem by a poetry project student named Sama, about her grandmother’s mint. A translator interpreted as I read the poem and, later, read each woman’s lines back to me in English.

“My Grandmother’s Mint”
by Sama Jabbarimehmani, from Iran

I remember my grandmother,
she grew mint in her garden,
I remember it was medicine for my mind.
When I smell mint, I imagine a calm forest.
Yes, mint smells like a calm forest.
When I breathe mint
it makes my mouth feel cold and fresh.
My grandmother would make a drink of mint lemonade,
she mixed mint, lemons and water together in her blender,
this drink was wonderful medicine for my heart.

The poem brought about a palpable change in the room, as if Sama’s poem were a mirror in which the women could see themselves. It generated talk of home gardens, of the fragrance of mint and the simplicity of peaceful moments. If poetry is the space where we can say the unsayable, and I believe it is, the room was filled with what can and cannot be said. I followed Sama’s poem with a poem written by another poetry project student, Monia Haman. The last stanzas of her poem read as follows:

I remember when I was young, Baghdad at night
was like a big golden box
full of colorful jewels,
like a mother trying to protect her children,
like a source of love and safety.

But now she is old, exhausted,
vulnerable, dismayed,
grieving for losing thousands
of her strong children.

All because of what?
Because of the Iraq war.

As the workshop progressed, I read additional poems from my students in America who had crossed borders to escape war. It was as if their poems had traveled back to bring solace to women from the same war-torn parts of the world. Some of the women wept softly, others lent their quiet support and all were comfortable with the display of sorrow and tears because each had experienced profound life-changing losses. Each woman wrote her poem in her own language and script.  Afterwards, when the poems were read aloud and translated, the mixture of grief and strength already present in the room intensified.

Here are poems by two of the workshop participants, Wasan and Rawa, that were translated by two Arabic speaking poets I had the pleasure of meeting in Athens.

“I Remember”
By Wasan

I remember how Iraq was beautiful
and how we lived in safety
and everything was sweet.
I miss my mother’s food,
and my father’s return from work
in the evening and I miss how my brothers
and me would rush to hug him,
I miss the laughter sweetened by us.
Now, the more I cry, the less tears I have.
Now, everything is unjust,
we live and die in thorns.
I used to love the color yellow,
the color of the Sun,
the color of the East,
the color of a new life
and a new day.
In my life time, my flowers have been fading
the papers are tired of my ink and my tears,
heartbreak mixed with pain are wounding me.
Now Iraq has become destruction,
nothing remains like it was before,
I am longing for my old city.
Now I just live for my children,
their future has become my everything,
the only thing, in my life.

“Rawa’s Poem”

I am from Damascus, Syria.
I love my country and I hope to return there,
but I can’t because of the war.

Every day, every hour, every minute,
I remember my mother, father and siblings,
they never stray from my mind.
And I remember my brother, who was killed,
and I remember how he was killed.

I don’t forget how our little village was besieged
and dozens of people died from hunger.
Many of our relatives died.
We sold all our possessions to buy food for our children,
three months of hunger and bombs,
the image can never leave my mind.
One kilo of rice seemed to be worth $2000,
we bought two spoon-fulls to make soup.
I can never forget when my children,
my husband and I hid
in the bathroom,
cowering from the bombs.

Where Do We Go from Here?

I returned to the US having heard stories and poems that address the unimaginable hardships of forced migration. Story by story, stanza by stanza, women and men, elders and youth told of their treacherous journeys. Stories of those who were lost on the journey or who perished in the war swirled like ghosts or dust conjuring images of lost loved ones. These are stories and poems of the real horrors of war that too many of us do not hear. Yet what do we do with a poem written by the Syrian mother who hid with her husband and children in the bathroom while bombs were dropping? What should we do? Before we view these as the poems and stories of immigrants or refugees or asylum seekers, I think we must first learn to see them as the heartfelt expressions of human beings.

We often hear about the “flow” of migration, but I have learned that thousands of asylum seekers and migrants are in a state of fixity, waiting and waiting, but going nowhere. Many are stuck in vastly overcrowded prison-like camps; others live without documentation in continual fear of arrest and deportation. Asylum laws throughout Europe are filled with loopholes that continue to deal excruciating blows to asylum seekers. In Europe, as in America, there is a chilling rise of right-wing nationalism. The obstacles that prevent migrants from receiving the human rights and the human dignity everyone deserves are immense.

Still, I want to believe that words can be, as Sama describes her grandmother’s mint, “medicine for the mind and the heart.” I want these deeply human poems and stories to guide our actions and our policies. We need them more than ever to dispel the rhetoric of hatred and fear. If we fail to exchange our stories of survival and hope across our borders, we will always remain strangers, and in this there will be no peace.

About the Author: 

Merna Ann Hecht, nationally known storyteller, university teacher, and teaching artist, is the founder, co-director, and poet for the Stories of Arrival: Refugee and Immigrant Youth Voices Poetry Project, working with co-director and ELL teacher Carrie Stradley and her students at one of the most language and culturally diverse high schools in the country. Grants, awards, and partnerships for this project include the Institute for Poetic Medicine in Palo Alto, the Jack Straw Cultural Center of Seattle, and the Satterberg Foundation. Merna’s essays and poetry appear in Teachers & Writers Magazine, Our Food, Our Right: Recipes for Food Justice; Drash: Northwest Mosaic; Making Mirrors: Writing and Righting Refugees; and other books and journals. Merna has a masters degree from the University of Washington with additional international training in theater in education, drama therapy and expressive arts modalities. During her recent travels in Europe, she volunteered directly with asylum seekers in NGOs for women, children, and unaccompanied minors, bringing storytelling, drama, and poetry into their programs.

Photo: Copyright Giorgos Moutafis for Solidarity Now

Works Cited:

Hecht, Merna Ann, editor. Holding the Earth Together: Youth Voices Speak for Our
World. Seattle, WA: Chatwin Books, 2018.
_______________, editor. Our Table of Memories: Food & Poetry of Sprit,
Homeland & Tradition. Seattle, WA: Chatwin Books, 2015.
Joukhadar, Jennifer Zeynab. The Map of Salt and Stars. NY: Simon & Schuster,
Serri, Bracha, “Thread by Thread,” in The Space Between Our Footsteps: Poems
and Paintings from the Middle East. Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye. NY: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 1998


Highly Recommended:

Bseiso, Jehan, editor & Thompson, Becky, author, editor.  Making Mirrors:
Writing/Righting by and for Refugees. Olive Branch Press, 2019
Kullab, Samya, Roche, Jackie & Mike Freiheit. Escape from Syria. (graphic
novel). Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2017
Senzai, N.H. Escape from Aleppo. NY: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman
Books, 2018


For information about the organizations mentioned in the article:

Greek Forum of Refugees

Pass the Crayon

Solidarity Now

Current Information on the U.S. Family Separation Policy

Suggested Resources for further reading about the EU / Turkey Deal & the situation for refugees in Europe 






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Teachers & Writers Collaborative: www.twc.org