Poetry Portal to Togetherness
On National Poetry Day 2019, we have released a film of the poem Trees of Home by Sita Brahmachari being illustrated by Gruffalo artist Axel Scheffler. It is in support of the Families Together campaign, which calls on the UK Government to allow refugee families to reunite safely in the UK.
Here author and Amnesty Ambassador Sita Brahmachari reflects on her work at the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, which inspired the poem Trees of Home.
As a child and teenager my first writing instinct found voice in poetry. Like many children I found the potency of distilled thought and feeling contained within a poem to have an almost magical, transformative force. Poetry had a charge for me and was the place I wrote the words that burned in me to be expressed. I also found the variety of poetry I read and wrote, from a comical rhyming poem, a limerick, sonnet, Haiku to odes and free verse, to be liberating. I heard poetry in birdsong and wild weather, in the surge of waterfalls and in the voices of people in my family. They spoke in many languages – including English - with distinct idiom, dialects and accents. They brought the richness of many heritages, beliefs, landscapes and histories. I often tell young readers that my ear for language, love of playing with words and my quest for the superpower of empathy stemmed from the cross-cultural poetics I was exposed to as a child.
Through work in community, activism and theatre I have been drawn towards lyrical expression as a powerful means of sharing experience and bringing about deep communal listening. In a stage production of Shaun Tan’s extraordinary graphic novel ‘The Arrival’, for example, I found that the sparse, distilled text needed to stage it called for poetry.
"In our class, refugee people with unimaginably fractured lives settle together in a rare moment of stillness. We focus on a painting of a flower, piece of fruit, bird, feather, leaf or tree, and together we struggle to express the complexity of our journeys, our hopes and dreams"
Sita Brahmachari speaking of artist Jane Ray's poetry and art classes at the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants
Almost four years ago I was invited to work with the wonderful illustrator Jane Ray at in the art and writing class. We needed to find and express words across language, history, religion, culture, conflict, trauma and uprootedness and it was my instinct to open the communal listening ear. In this way we have been able to build word-hoards and make poetry together. Every week we strive for expression beyond function through poetry and art (in our class they are deeply interconnected). It gives us a means of holding and expressing an extraordinary array of thoughts and feelings.
In our class, refugee people with unimaginably fractured lives settle together in a rare moment of stillness. We focus on a painting of a flower, piece of fruit, bird, feather, leaf or tree, and together we struggle to express the complexity of our journeys, our hopes and dreams. Poetry is our means of painting in words. It is a portal to hold our difference and commonalities. The ache for humane treatment finds its force again and again through the portal of art and poetry.
Each week we read the poems we have created together. For people who have lost almost everything, the poem becomes a powerful materialised symbol of voices being heard and respected. That a poem from our class has been selected to support the campaign, recorded in the voice of one of the contributing poets, has inspired Alex Scheffler to illustrate it and has been released for National Poetry Day, takes the power of this poetry a step further. We are hearing directly from the voices of refugee people telling us what it means to be denied the right to live with our families.
I am proud to be an Amnesty Ambassador and never forget the power that freedom of speech gives each and every one of us. For refugee people - whose voices and freedoms have been denied - to know that your dream to be reunited with your family has touched people’s hearts enough to call for a change in the law is truly powerful.
My table is set for an evening meal with my family who are just at that cusp age of making their way from childhood to adulthood… an age where under current Home Office regulations they would be denied the right to join me if I were a refugee in this country.
Claims that the arts can be truly transformative are often made, but hard to prove. It’s our hope that this poem written by refugee people will be heard by the communal ear and contribute to making a change that will bring families together.
Please call on the Home Secretary to change the rules by signing the petition
Here I wait
Painting the trees of home
With their splendid, succulent, splintered roots
Banana, Birch, Mango, Chilli, Cherry, Apple, Oak, Coconut, Palm, Plane
Here I paint
At the foot of the memory tree
Legs of skinny brown bark holding up a blue world
My child is kissed by a falling leaf
Here is the tree planted by my grandfather on my daughter's birthday
Now I sit in a London park
And paint and wait
To hold her in my arms
Among the saplings
The bright green leaves
The promise of spring
Now sparse winter, bright red berries
Season after season I paint and wait
For these branches to bud.
To see my family again.
- Sita Brahmachari
Sita Brahmachari is Writer in Residence at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.