World Refugee Day was held globally for the first time on June 20, 2001, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees. It is an international day designated by the United Nations to honour refugees around the globe.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the day “is an occasion to build empathy and understanding for their plight and to recognise their resilience in rebuilding their lives.”
UNHCR has publicised a poem, “Refuge”, by Jason Fotso, written in 2015. Fotso, an African American student at the time, wrote the poem following the November 2015 Paris attacks, a wave of anti-refugee sentiment made its way overseas to the United States and there was a hostility to accepting Syrian refugees.
To the eighteen-year-old Fotso the closed-door stance contradicted the longstanding US policy of welcoming refugees, and, more symbolically, the sonnet inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
Jason wrote this reverse poem so that the reading would transform the very words of antagonism into those of empathy:
Reverse poetry is a poem that can be read forwards (top to bottom) and have one meaning, but can also be read backwards (bottom to top) and have a different or opposite meaning.
(Follow the punctuation, ignore the spacing.)
Turn away the refugees.
We will not
our homes and hearts
Close our doors on
love can put
strength in our
We cannot let them bleed into our
They share the blood of our
are endangered by
We have forgotten
the words that
the Statue of Liberty shines.
In this darkest hour,
stands stronger than
the home of the brave.
(Now read from bottom to top, use the spacing.)
Why does a person leave his or her home? Why does a family decide to take a small boat which they know is not seaworthy and risk their lives to cross the waters leaving behind their homes, belongings, families?
The answer to the question is summed up in the line of a poem by Warsan Shire, “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark.” The line by the British Somali poet has become a rallying call for refugees and their advocates.
Refugees do not leave their country out of choice but because of persecution, fear of being tortured, even executed or detention under conditions which makes a dangerous journey to an unknown country worth the risk.
But the journey of a refugee seeking asylum is a long one. When they arrive on the shores or borders of the country where they hope to get asylum they land up in a refugee camp or a detention centre.
Perhaps the most powerful writing on the conditions of detention is written in Farsi by a young Iranian-Kurdish poet, Behrouz Boochani, detained by the Australian authorities. He wrote of the conditions of detentions not on paper or on a computer but thumbed on a phone and smuggled out of Manus island in the form of thousands of texted messages.
Behrouz used tweets, texts, phone videos, calls and emails to tell the story of the refugees being detained by the Australian Government. In doing this he defied the Australian Government’s rules which allowed for jailing for two years for bearing witness to cruelties at the detention camp for refugees.
Behrouz was held in the Australian-run Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea from 2013 until its closure in 2017. His book No Friend But the Mountain was published in July 2018 ,when he was still under detention.
He remained on the island before being moved to Port Moresby along with the other detainees around September 2019 and it was only in July 2020 that he got asylum in New Zealand.
Even when a refugee does not face the extreme cruelties faced by the refugees at the Australian detention camps their experience of trying to adjust to life in a strange country brings endless difficulties.
JJ Bola, a child of six when he arrived in Britain with his parents fleeing the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, describes the process in his poem, “Refuge”.
imagine how it feels to be chased out of home. to have your grip ripped. loosened from your fingertips something you so dearly held on to. like a lover’s hand that slips when pulled away you are always reaching.
my father would speak of home. reaching. speaking of familiar faces. girl next door
who would eventually grow up to be my mother. the fruit seller at the market. the lonely man at the top of the road who nobody spoke to. and our house at the bottom of the street
lit up by a single flickering lamp
where beyond was only darkness. there
they would sit and tell stories...
There have been many poets from the Rohingyas who are writing poems in refugee camps under dire conditions. They have even published their collection of poems. Here is one, entitled “My Life”:
Here’s my life in brief . . .— Farooq Pacifist
I was a frog in a well,
A prisoner in the jail of fresh air.
In the dark, dark cosmos,
No days, just nights, nights.
A small cormorant survives
the genocidal waves
by being flung, crashing
into the world’s strangeness.
Storm of racism, of hate –
This is my life.
Just like an action movie
In which you are the gangster.
Just like an actor who cannot discover his lines.
In Arakan, they kill and bury you
under the treasure of human rights.
Millions of refugees live from day to day. For many, UNHCR is their only hope. They have to make many rounds of the UNHCR office and all too often there too the refugee faces indifference of bureaucratic officers; and just as much as UNHCR are helping the individual refugee the refugees in the world are sustaining the luxurious lifestyles of the UNHCR officers.
International Refugee Day is a day we should be asking why are there so many refugees in the world. Who is responsible for the wars that have forced men, women and children to leave their countries, their homes. Ultimately, every refugee and every person wants a country where he or she can live with dignity.
This is so eloquently conveyed by Amineh Abou Kerech, a teenaged Syrian refugee girl, in her poem “Lament to Syria”:
Syrian doves croon above my head
their call cries in my eyes.
I’m trying to design a country
that will go with my poetry
and not get in the way when I’m thinking,
where soldiers don’t walk over my face.
I’m trying to design a country
which will be worthy of me if I’m ever a poet
and make allowances if I burst into tears.
I’m trying to design a City
of Love, Peace, Concord and Virtue,
free of mess, war, wreckage and misery.
Refugees are the creation of foreign policies, they are the victims of inequality and injustice of the international world order and at least on this day we should contemplate on why we have a growing number of refugees in the world; we should ask why we have any refugees at all.