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The talented poets living in the world's largest refugee camp

Posted 1st August 2019

A new book gives voice to the Rohingya Muslims.
Jade Cuttle finds out more

In the final week of April this year, James Byrne, a British lecturer, travelled to a refugee camp in Bangladesh, home to more than one million Rohingya Muslims, to teach poetry. The former editor of The Wolf a magazine that published poems from across the world, the 42-year-old was appalled by the persecution of the Rohingya, who had been driven out of their home state of Rakhine after a deadly "clearance operation" by the Burmese army, and was determined to publicise their fate.

Journalists had told the story, of course - Burma's leader Aung San Suu Kyi stands accused of crimes against humanity and the UN has described the violence that drove the Rohingya from a territory they had lived in for centuries as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing". But Byrne, together with his colleague Shehzar Doja, believed poetry could convey the anguish and resilience of the refugees in a way no other art form could match.

"Our aim was to set up the first ever creative writing workshop in the Cox's Bazar camps," says Byrne. "Every person there has a story to tell or knows someone, often from their own family, who has been killed, raped, imprisoned or tortured. We wanted to put together a poetic response from those who'd survived."

Cox's Bazar is the largest refugee camp in the world. Actually a conglomeration of more than 20 camps, it is the size of a small city and is comprised mostly of fragile shelters made out of bamboo poles and tarpaulin. Day-to-day life is unimaginably hard.

Byrne and Doja's workshops took place in a learning centre set up by an NGO and attracted a range of people, some of whom had written poems before and some who hadn't (many had never had a formal education). After a discussion of writers such as TS Eliot, and lessons about metaphor, imagery and poetic technique, the men worked with their "students" to create their own work. The results, many of which feature in a new book, l Am a Rohingya, were extraordinary - and almost unbearably sad.

They're Kind Killers by 27-year-old Mayyu Ali is a particularly harrowing read. It is based on an account from a rape survivor of the Tula Toli Massacre, which was carried out by the Burmese military in Rakhine State in 2017. "A stream of blood gushes / From where my husband and son were killed," it starts. "I watched / My baby snatched from me / Thrown into the bonfire / Reflected in my eyes."

Another, by a 19-year-old calling himself Pacifist Farooq (many of the poets disguise their real identities to protect themselves from possible retribution), is entitled My Life. "I was a frog in a well / A prisoner in the jail of fresh air," it reads.

"The fact that we received such high-quality poetry from people who are experiencing such hardships is remarkable," says Byrne. "It's impossible to imagine what atrocities all the poets have been through and continue to go through every day," Doja adds. "I have always believed that poetry has the power to make great changes and behind [I Am a Rohingya] is a desire for the world to listen and empathise."

To reach the largest possible audience, most of the poets have written directly in English. But the anthology also features two poems translated from the Burmese and three folk songs transcribed from the Rohingya. In spite of its romantic overtones, Lovesong, by an anonymous writer, plumbs the depths of the Rohingya people's collective uncertainty ("You catch yourself slipping and falling / On the narrow road / A black water jug - cracked on a dark night").

Besides the grief and sorrow, though, the anthology also embodies extraordinary resilience and bravery. "It is lived experience, often backed up by direct witness," says Byrne. "But perhaps it's also worth reminding those down on political poetry that they can also be just poems, celebrating the vitality of language."

The book also, challenges some of the stereotypes surrounding refugees. "I am hopeful people will realise that, even though we have been victimised, we are not defined by it," says Yasmin Ullah, a Rohingya poet based in Canada. "We are survivors who hope to be able to contribute to the betterment of this world as much as everyone else."

by Jade Cuttle, The Daily Telegraph, Friday, 26 July 2019.

Telegraph Review, 26-Jul-2019
Telegraph Review, 26-Jul-2019