for Yousif Qasmiyeh
Unhappy the man who keeps to the home placeand never finds time to escape to the citywhere he can listen to the rain on the ceiling,secure in the knowledge that it’s causing no damageto roof-thatch or haystack or anything of his.
Unhappy the man who never got upon a tragic May morning, to go to the stationdressed out for America where he might have stoodby the Statue of Liberty, or drunk in the lightthat floods all the streets that converge on Times Square.
Unhappy the man who has lacked the occasionto return to the village on a sun-struck May morning,to shake the hands of the neighbours he’d left a lifetime ago and tell the world’s wonders,before settling down by his hearth once again.
I was bornOn the seam of a dress, In the last hourOf the sixth day,Between clusters of starsAnd the borders of a river.
I was neitherAdam reaching the ground,Nor was I myselfIn citiesWhich share their waterWith the agents of doom.
I lean on The footsteps of my pastAs I slip towardsMy shadow.
The shadow which I leftLyingOutside our houseOn the morning Of that funeral.
I am that dead personBut I don’t knowHow He managed to escape.
© Bernard O'Donoghue and Yousif Qasmiyeh; from See How I Land: Oxford Poets and Exiled Writers (Heaventree Press, 2009).
These two poems are from a project we've been organizing through the Brookes Poetry Centre. It's called the Oxford Poets & Refugees project, and it has brought 14 Oxford-based poets together with 14 exiled writers, mostly refugees and asylum seekers. Each established poet worked one-to-one with an exiled writer over a series of workshops.
Two of the participants were Bernard O'Donoghue and Yousif Qasmiyeh.
Yousif grew up in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon. He started writing at an early age and was a teacher for a United Nations school based within the Palestinian refugee camps before arriving in the UK in 2004. He now works in an Oxford secondary school where he supports young refugee and migrant children in their studies.
He explains that "My poem is about my birth, and also about death, and explores loneliness from the perspective of a person who is ‘here' but whose family is ‘there'."
"We ended up writing different kinds of poems," notes Bernard. "Yousif's was a rather searing sequence about his experiences in Lebanon and mine was partly trying to think of corresponding Irish experiences, very different as those obviously are.
"It took me back to thinking about a period of my childhood when emigration was a very big issue, with people going from Ireland to America ... and they might only come back perhaps 10 years later, or longer. It was an extraordinary wrench for people in their teens."
The work resulting from the 14 collaborations has been collected into an anthology, See How I Land: Oxford Poets and Exiled Writers (Heaventree Press, 2009). For more information about the project and the anthology, please see the project website.