With the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, the poem has received a great deal of attention online and in the press. An article in The Guardian provided some background:
“No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well.” This evocative stanza from poet Warsan Shire’s Home hit a nerve online recently as the European public finally woke up to the reality of the refugee crisis. Explaining, in short verses, the unthinkable choices refugees must take, Shire writes: “no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land.”
The young Nairobi-born, London-raised writer first drafted another poem about the refugee experience, Conversations about home (at a deportation centre), in 2009 after spending time with a group of young refugees who had fled troubled homelands including Somalia, Eritrea, Congo and Sudan. The group gave a “warm” welcome to Shire in their makeshift home at the abandoned Somali Embassy in Rome, she explains, describing the conditions as cold and cramped. The night before she visited, a young Somali had jumped to his death off the roof. The encounter, she says, opened her eyes to the harsh reality of living as an undocumented refugee in Europe: “I wrote the poem for them, for my family and for anyone who has experienced or lived around grief and trauma in that way.”
Shire was something of a phenomenon well before this poem became famous, though. The New Yorker wrote about her last month: “The Writing Life of a Young, Prolific Poet.”
Her poetry evokes longing for home, a place to call home, and is often nostalgic for memories not her own, but for those of her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, people who forged her idea of her ancestral homeland through their own stories. With fifty thousand Twitter followers and a similar number of Tumblr readers, Shire, more than most today, demonstrates the writing life of a young, prolific poet whose poetry or poem-like offhand thoughts will surface in one of your social media feeds and often be exactly what you needed to read, or what you didn’t know that you needed to read, at that moment.
And sure enough, I first encountered her work this past weekend, when a stanza from a poem she wrote in 2011 was being passed around in image-meme form in reaction to the Da’esh attacks in Paris. I shared it to my Facebook feed, where it quickly racked up more likes and shares than anything I’ve posted all year.