Refugee Week

Crikey. This site’s supposed to be easy to use, but I always struggle. I suppose with computers, there comes a point where you’ve either got it or you haven’t. I’ve been dealt a pretty good hand in life, so I guess I can live with it.

And on the theme of the hand life deals you, I’ve actually sat down to write something about this week’s activities in schools for Refugee Week. Poetry workshops. Eight schools in Birmingham (8 primary, 2 secondary) and around 400 children, all of whom gave it their best shot at imagining being a refugee, or, in the case of quite a few, writing about really being a refugee or migrant.

I’ve long since suspected that pound for pound, children are far more open-minded and tolerant than adults. I’m now sure this is the case. 400 children aged 8-13 worked solidly for 2-3 hours and not once did I hear a word of the tired old racism propounded by the readers of our more ignorant newspapers. Discussions were measured, listening was attentive, and, crucially, those who disagreed with a point of view did so with respect, rather than dismissal. The work which was begun in our sessions (to be completed with the children’s class teachers) also showed a depth of perception which many outside the school system wouldn’t expect.

So, what did we do?

We looked at elephants! To be precise, David Attenborough’s ‘Spy in the Herd’, where a herd moves as they have no food. This necessity to move, making the elephants refugees, rather than migrants. (In all of the schools, the children understood this difference. I wonder what percentage of the adult population would get this right, or even think it important?)

Although it wasn’t the main focus of the project, as an English teacher, I wanted this work to enhance and reinforce literacy, so from the clip, we came up with some WOW words (one of my favourite phrases) to describe the feelings of the baby elephant as it was on the move. We then went on to looking at how the pachyderms’ (WOW word!) was a metaphor for human refugees.

This was followed by some clear and confident reading of a couple of my poems on the subject, and then the children planned their own and began to write them. This gave an opportunity to revise poetic terms learned, and they only needed a few thousand reminders that POEMS DON’T HAVE TO RHYME, AND ARE OFTEN BETTER WHEN THEY DON’T!!!!! And did this stop a few brave/silly souls from doing it anyway? Rhetorical question!

The aim of this work was to raise awareness of what it’s like to be a refugee. To be honest, the schools had done a pretty good job of this anyway (one school has used a classroom to make a mock-up of a refugee camp; another has written postcards of support to give to refugees). As I wanted expression and empathy to be the keynotes, pupils who have a second language were allowed to write in that language if was easier for them, or if it simply suited them better. Some work came out which sounded beautifully soulful, even to those of us who didn’t understand the words.

Once the teachers send me some of the finished work, it’ll be posted with due acknowledgement of authorship.

Hopefully, this will be repeated next year and rolled out to schools elsewhere in the country.

Meanwhile, I give heartfelt thanks to

About 400 children

Numerous teaching and teaching assistant colleagues

Carl Marshall and Razia Butt from Birmingham City Council

Schools of Sanctuary for supporting this project…

… and especially Barbara Forbes from Schools of Sanctuary who enthused about this from the moment I floated the idea, obtained the funding for it to take place, and put me in contact with her contact in the schools. Without Barbara, this really wouldn’t have happened.

Now for the hard part. Can I publish this without deleting it instead?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love In…

Today
At McDonalds

I saw…

A woman
With a face
Like the sludge
On her boots

A man spitting
Into a plastic cup

A man
Chastise his son
With the C word

A woman
Forgotten
By hope

A backside
That never sees home cooking

A couple
Of cracked statues

A guy talking into his phone
As if
He were alone

A woman
Forgotten

By everyone

Their kids all ate Happy Meals

Sweeping

The Sikhs’ magnificent Harmandir, or Golden Temple, is the centrepiece of the temple complex in the holy city of Amritsar. Tourists are welcome, and when i visited, I saw the following act of humility which on the surface looks small, but which is imbued with huge significance.

Auntie
Respected, Rich
Humbles herself

Auntie
Knowing what pride precedes
Hitches her sari above her feet

Auntie
A forward thinking lady
Descends the stairs

Slowly

Clears her mind
Cleans God’s house
For the pious
For the tourists
For the peasants who spend their lives
Swallowing dust

Not born to be a cleaner
She sweeps
Bare-handed
Right to left
Right to left
Gathering tiny piles
Of unholy dust

Each movement
Physically
A speck of dirt

Each movement
Spiritually
A broadstroke golden universe
Of love and hope

Sweeping
Unkind thoughts
Sweeping
Everyday sins
Sweeping
The one thing
No rug is big enough to cover

Outside
Sweet water reflects
Ten heavenly smiles
Nanak to Gobind

Inside
The eleventh
Pauses its reading
And bookmarks
The purity
Flowing in and out
Of four open doors

My Second City

My Second City

My second city
Is called the Second City
It’s very different from my first

From date palms
To packaged dates
From cows swishing flies
To a bronze bull
Girls in jeans

I wonder what that word means?

Safe new friends
A school with books
Free bus rides, with unfriendly looks
Skyscrapers
Sky-high prices
Everything’s sort of clean and neat
Just don’t even think of stepping out in bare feet

A sanctuary with a leaky roof
My shiny blue raincoat drips daily proof
My Second City gives me every little thing I need

Except love

When I think of my first city
I laugh and I laugh and I laugh
Until it hurts

In my Second City
Nothing waits
No-one waits
But we wait and wait and wait and wait
For permission to unpack ourselves and stay
I’m really sure I’d like to stay

Perhaps for a few more days

Untouchable

On my recent trip
To Gujarat

I took
Numerous
Pretty photographs

Of Modhera
Palitana
Dwarka
The White Desert

And other pretty places

But

The image
I can’t delete
From my heart

My hard drive

Is of a ragged street child
At Vastrapur Lake
Who stepped out
From the promenading crowd

Raised
His left
Index finger
Into the stifling
Late afternoon

Air

And drew
A rectangle
To take
An imaginary selfie

With me

Back to the Day Job

Somebody once wrote that drink was the scourge of the working classes. Then some joker reversed the polarities and got closer to the truth. Either way, it’s the scourge of the artistic ‘classes’ as well. Today saw me reacquainted with the day job, and this evening sees me with distinctly mixed feelings. As a supply teacher, I can’t say I’m truly suffering for my art. The bills get paid and the hours aren’t that long. Compare to Charles Bukowski, who worked in a postal sorting office for ten years before deciding to ‘quit and starve’ before he went mad. Obviously, countless others have laboured, literally, in order to support their literary labours.

After two months of no income, I’m grateful for the job I’ve got. I’m also grateful for having something to do. Nevertheless, the feeling endures that I really shouldn’t be in teaching. It’s not because I hate it, as I don’t. It’s not because I think it’s beneath me, as I don’t (and would deserve shooting if I did). The point is I’m better at writing, I’m passionate about writing and I’m prepared to put in more than the hours of a full-time job.

Intellectually, I get that writing doesn’t, for the vast majority, pay. But in my heart, there’s a glimmer of hope that one day it will and this is what I deserve. Meanwhile, as JM Coetzee put it, there’s escapism and there’s the real world. Now, which is which?…