Wednesday, 2 May 2012

My suitcase is packed...... by Miriam Halahmy

How do you write what is in your heart if you are fifteen years old, your mother tongue is Arabic or Somali or Amharic and you have only been in the UK for six months? This year I had the opportunity to work on a project organised by English PEN and the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, North London, for newly arrived young people. Last week we launched the anthology of their work, 'My Suitcase is Packed' at the theatre, with many of the young people reading on stage.

After working with people from many different countries with minimal English for some years I have come to realise that in fact 'less is more' and perhaps it is even possible to get closer to your feelings if your vocabulary is very limited.
Asked to write on the subject of 'Power Over My Life', in the form of an acrostic, one boy from Somali wrote :
My life is like a movie
Yesterday is gone and it will never come back.

Watching these young people come on stage and read in English in front of an audience of their peers, their teachers, the guest authors which included the well know poet and performer, John Hegley, I was amazed at their poise and confidence. They read beautifully, they were clear and concise and they gave us a very strong impression of their feelings about their home countries and their lives in the UK.

One of the poems I used in my session was 'Go and Open the Door' by Miroslav Holub. Some amazing and deeply moving poetry emerged.
Hamed from Somalia who has not seen his mother's face for five years wrote :
Go and open the door
maybe outside there is a river of blood
Go and open the door
maybe outside there is my old home.

Being given the opportunity to bear witness has a huge effect on asylum seekers in a writing workshop. Ahmed commented to us after we listened to his poem, "This has been the best day of my life." I interpreted this as meaning, at last I have been heard. This is what he wrote in class :
Iraq is the country
maybe I will see dead and war
maybe I will see guns bombs and bullets
but no matter what
I will see happy, helpful and nice people.

One of the high points of the performance at the Tricycle was the reading of a poem by John and a simultaneous translation into Somali by Abukhar which he did very fluently.

...your journey is your own
my heart is like a stone
and I know how it must be
I know you must be free
and I knew you wouldn't 
get very far without me.

Philip Cowell, Director of the Readers and Writers programme at English PEN commented on stage, "Writing is a brave thing to do. It is a true expression of free speech and it is a very brave thing to come up on stage and to read your work." English PEN campaigns for freedom of speech for all writers wherever they are in the world and fundraises for projects in prisons and with refugees and asylum seekers to ensure they also have access to opportunities to write and be heard.

All the participants received this lovely certificate and will have the opportunity to use the work in these sessions towards receiving an Arts Award. For some of these young people who will miss out on GCSEs this is a chance to gain a first qualification and they were all very proud of their certificates, as you can imagine.

Go and open the door
Maybe outside there's
A celebration of your mother's birthday and lovely faces
smiling with you.
Go and open the door
Maybe there's a Lion fighting with the people or your country is burning.
Go and open the door
You'll see your mother smiling at you
Or your boyfriend
Go and open the door
Maybe there's 
Your boyfriend kissing your lips
Or your dreams coming true.
by Fadumo Mohamed ( who enjoys reading history books, playing basketball and watching TV.)

You can find out more about English PEN at this link :


Ness Harbour said...

Miriam, this is awe inspiring. What an amazing thing to be involved in and what fantastic young people. Thank you for telling us about it.

Jane McLoughlin said...

Thanks for sharing this, Miriam. This must have been such an inspiring opportunity--and what fantastic luck for the young writers who had the chance to work with someone as talented as you!

JO said...

What a wonderful project - good luck to all these talented young people.

Sue Purkiss said...

This sounds like a wonderful project - thanks for telling us about it, Miriam.

Miriam Halahmy said...

It was one of my favourite projects with PEN although I have enjoyed all of them. But these young people were really amazing and I felt very privileged to be able to work with them.

Carole Anne Carr said...

This is wonderful and loved the use of poetry, very moving.

Savita Kalhan said...

Truly inspiring, Miriam, and what an amazing group of young people. I can't even begin to imagine the stories behind those kids, or what they've been through.

Sue Hyams said...

Lovely post. What an amazing experience it must have been.

Julia Green said...

This moved me to tears. Beautiful and inspiring. Thank you.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Amazing post Miriam! Thanks for sharing the experience and highlighting the work of PEN.

Katherine Langrish said...

Wow. Brought tears to my eyes, Miriam,what wonderful young people.

Odette said...

Thanks so much Miriam for sharing this with us. What a great project and wonderful young people! Congratulations on taking part in such a worthwhile project.

Leslie Wilson said...

Hugely moving - and as you say, it's amazing how the restriction of language makes it possible for the feeling to come out - poignant, gut-wrenching, and true

Enid Richemont said...

I remember you mentioning your work with asylum seekers, so reading this was fascinating. It must have been such an enriching experience for both them and you.

Anonymous said...

I study at the Institute of Education and my tutor inspired us with the anthology. Where can I get a copy from? i'd love to use it in the classroom.