The power of poetry


The students at the first school I taught at, where I did my Teach First training, almost all spoke English as an additional language - around 90% of them, to be precise. Their presence reflected the history of the world's recent wars, like stratum in a rock. There were Sri Lanka Tamils and Somalis, Albanians and Kosovans, and waves of Iranians, Afghans and Iraqis. There was one Afghan girl who had met her father for the first time at the age of 14, when he had finally managed to sort out papers for his family to join him in London, after over a decade of trying.

As I finished my time at this particular school, we were garnering increasing numbers of Syrians; utterly traumatised children fleeing situations worse than we can possibly imagine. And that was then, over two years ago. How much more terrible has the situation in their poor, beleaguered country become since then? One girl I taught could not speak a word of English, despite having been in England for over six months before she finally made it to school. She would sing to herself in class and rock backwards and forwards. She wanted to join in but did not know how, and despite the fact that many of the other students, like her, spoke Arabic as their mother tongue, she did not befriend them nor they her. But come parents' evening, there she was, her and her dad, who also did not speak more than four or five words of English. Still, despite this, despite the horror the family had been through and the difficulties they were undoubtedly still facing on a daily, probably hourly basis, he came to the school to 'talk' to the teachers because being here, in London, more than anything else meant a chance to get his child the education she had been denied for so long, both within Syria since the war began and during their enforced exile.

A tiny year 7 girl from the Lebanon volunteered to translate and so I was able to find out some of the family's story, one that has become much, much too familiar as the war and the news coverage continue. Bombed out of their house, family members dead (dad did not say who and I didn't feel a draughty and crowded school hall in north-west London was the place to ask), their village razed to the ground, those still alive had had no choice but to flee. It was very early in the war and most people were staying put, never believing how bad it was going to get. But this family had no alternative but to go. They went to Egypt, spent a year there and somehow managed to get to London. I didn't ask how, whether legally or not, as that was none of my business and it didn't matter anyway. Here they were, trying to make a new life in a foreign land and I don't know how anyone could do anything but support them in that. When I left the school I obviously lost all contact with this family. I wish them well and hope they manage to put together a life worth living in their new home.

All of this is leading somewhere, I promise you, and the point of it is that I'm wondering if anyone is writing the poetry of Syria's war that, like the words of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon etc, will echo down through the decades, reminding us of these darkest of days for that nation? I hope, I'm sure, they are but I'd love to know for certain. Poetry has a unique way of telling the longest story in the shortest number of words. If you had never heard anything, ever, about WWI except Dulce et Decorum Est, you would understand the horror all too well.

One day, in my classroom, we were reading The Yellow Palm by Robert Minhinnick - one of the 'conflict' cluster of poems in the old GCSE English Literature spec. Throughout the poem runs the refrain, 'As I made my way down Palestine Street'. Two hands shot up before we had got any further than the first line. 'My mum grew up on Palestine Street,' volunteered one girl. 'She lived there all her life until she left Baghdad in the war.' Another girl chipped in, 'It's near where my dad was born, too.' She then carried on talking, explaining that her dad, an extremely devout Muslim, had refused to fight during the Iran-Iraq war, saying all violence is contra to Islam and he could not pick up arms against a fellow human being, least of all a fellow Muslim. For his humanity, Saddam Hussein threw him into jail where he was tortured daily for five years. Eventually he was released, at which point he fled to Norway, helped as I understand it by Amnesty International. His Iranian bride was shipped out to him there and two daughters were born before the family moved to London and had another child, a son. Like most of the school's pupils, this girl was in receipt of free school meals, so clearly the family were very hard up. 'And so,' finished my student, thoughtfully. 'I think that's why my dad can't work - even though he would like to - because so much damage was done to his legs and his nervous system by the torture in prison. So me and my sister, we need to do really well in our exams and go to university and get good jobs so that we can pay for him to be comfortable in his old age because where we live now is not very comfortable. The rooms are damp and our house is always cold.' The incongruity of hearing all this, out of the blue, on a wet Wednesday morning in the London borough of Brent, was discombobulating to say the least. How little we really know of how much struggling and suffering surrounds us.

I'm glad to report that this girl, who was super-clever and super-hardworking but dreadfully over-anxious, did extremely well in her GCSEs. Fluent in Arabic and English and the school's top French scholar, she has a bright future ahead of her and so much that she will, undoubtedly, contribute to our society and our economy. Do we really deny the same opportunities to the thousands and thousands of Syrians that we could help, if only we could open our hearts and our borders to them? I'm not sure that I understand a single reason why we would not do this. My next book, currently on a first round of submissions to publishers, features elements of the Syrian story and, assuming it gets a deal, I will be donating a percentage of any profits I make to charities working with Syrian people, primarily to those supporting education. So many young people have not been in school for so many years that a lost generation is being formed, the consequences of which will be felt for decades to come.

Poetry was so important to me when I was at school, and still now. TS Eliot and DH Lawrence remain favourites. I hope poetry continues to evoke incredible stories like the one above, even at the same time as I wish it didn't have to.

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