As I am writing this, the USA is putting people in cages, our politicians are telling refugees to go back.
What book of poetry to recommend in such a moment?
I am a Rohingya: Poetry from the Camps and Beyond is a book of poems in which refugees are given a voice. It has just been published by Arc in UK.
And, here is some context for our own moment: When he was recently asked about the plight of Rohingya people in the camps, our President Trump turned to his aide and asked: Where is this place?
The place is Cox’s Bazar; it is the oldest and largest ongoing refugee camp in the world. It began in 1797, when Captain Hiram Cox assigned ‘wastelands” to thousands of ‘Emigrants and Refugees.’
The people who live here are Rohingya, one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities on our planet. Although our President is not aware of this, over one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar currently live in the camps near Cox’s Bazar.
According to James Byrne, poet, translator, and co-editor of I am a Rohingya, the camps are so crowded that many can’t even get in. Here are lines from a poem by Zaki Ovais, one of the people of the camps:
I’m a fly in the kitchen, buzzing
on the boundary of a blind wall.
I’m a chicken under mother’s wing,
confined to the narrows of a wattle.
I’m the water flowing in Mayu river,
missing my partner: Air.
I’m a human in the universe,
denied the most basic rights.
I’m someone I’m afraid of.
How did this book come to be?
Shehzar Doja, Bangladeshi/French poet, and James Byrne, British poet, came to Cox’s Bazaar to work with twenty refugees. This was the first creative writing group ever facilitated in the camps. According to Byrne: “Shehzar and I quickly realized that the attendees weren’t just making history by being part of the poetry sessions, they wanted to mark history.”
Here are a few lines from the first ever Rohingya poetry anthology:
Snipers shoot father and mother,
drag their little son along the street
—Thida Shania, “Save Me”
What do you feel
when you see your sibling’s corpse
inside a mass grave?
—Maung Hla Shwe, “My Arakan”
I was born as one of the forgotten,
those the world doesn’t quite remember.
But at least I was born,
so you can hear me speaking up
—Yasmin Ullah, “Birth”