Mourning the Suffering of the Refugees | Tikkun

refugees-1By Rabbi Michael Lerner

Editor’s note: The poem below presents the most authentic understanding of the situation of the world’s refugees in the contemporary world. The refugees are momentarily in the media and hence in the consciousness of the world’s humanity, but will too soon fade from popular memory as do all who suffer. People have momentarily been moved by the great suffering of these refugees, and particularly their children, but politely ignore the role that the US and other “advanced” industrial European societies have played in creating the economic and political conditions which have led to the vast increase of refugees in the past twenty years.

For the U.S., that responsibility includes both the economic devastation wrought in South and Central America, Africa and Asia by the trade agreements (championed by the Clintons and more recently by Obama) that destroyed subsistence farming and forced millions of people into the barrios and slums of the big cities where they were often forced to choose between armed opposition to ruling elites or selling their children into slavery or sexual exploitation rather than see them starve to death; and also the devastation created by the U.S. wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and drone strikes in Yemen all of which gave rise to the Islamic State of Iraq & Syris (ISIS) with its brutality now spreading through populations driven crazy by the violence that the US and its allies intensified in the Middle East. So while Americans sit around looking in shock at this situation, deploring the growing xenophobia that not only is growing in Europe but which is being played to for political advantage by the Trump candidacy and other candidates for the Republic Presidential nomination, many willfully ignore the role of our own country in creating the preconditions for this growing horror show.

What a disgrace that politicians on the Right can rally support by calling for an expulsion of 11 million undocumented refugees in the U.S. (most of whom came here because it was impossible to make a living anymore in countries devastated by global capitalism and run by military elites trained in the torture and oppression that the School of Americas teaches to Central and South American militaries at Ft. Benning Georgia).  It makes me want to cry, to yell, and to mourn. (Plenty of material for the days of repentance and atonement that we will be observing from September 13th to September 23rd). Warsan Shire’s poem below helps that process of mourning and repentance. We will be reading her poem as part of our High Holiday service at Beyt Tikkun Synagogue Without Walls in Berkeley, Ca. (Details at

Photo Credit: Main photograph by Daniet Etter/New York Times/Redux /eyevine. Laith Majid cries tears of joy and relief that he and his children have made it to Europe.

“No One Leaves Home” by Warsan Shire

September 2, 2015 by Alam 

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
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Warsan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali poet, writer and educator based in London. Born in 1988, Warsan has read her work extensively all over Britain and internationally – including recent readings in South Africa, Italy, Germany, Canada, North America and Kenya- and her début book, ‘TEACHING MY MOTHER HOW TO GIVE BIRTH’ (flipped eye), was published in 2011. Her poems have been published in Wasafiri, Magma and Poetry Review and in the anthology ‘The Salt Book of Younger Poets’ (Salt, 2011). She is the current poetry editor at SPOOK magazine. In 2012 she represented Somalia at the Poetry Parnassus, the festival of the world poets at the Southbank, London. She is a Complete Works II poet. Her poetry has been translated into Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. Warsan is also the unanimous winner of the 2013 Inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize.

2 thoughts on “Mourning the Suffering of the Refugees | Tikkun

  1. I rarely read the emails from Tikkun anymore because they are often too long, and time is a cliche of preciousness.
    But, I am a poet.
    After reading this stunning work, I would like to get all my news in a poems, even though I get the New York Times delivered at my doorstep, every week.
    Rabbi Lerner, thank you for posting this stunning work.
    I too, write about the world, perhaps one day I can write for you.
    No matter!
    The timing of this before Shabbos and Selihot tomorrow, amplifies my grief.
    Please tell Warsan Shire that she was loudly and proudly heard, every word taken in, from London to New York City.
    As the daughter of a Mother who was a hidden child during he Holocaust, I feel this poem in my bones-soul-heart.
    We speak our words, we write our words, we pray for someone to listen.
    Now, Warsan Shire, I have heard you, as I have been hearing the cries that go out from refugees the world over.
    You are a blessing.
    Amen and
    thank you,
    Jean-Nicole Bass
    4 September 2015
    20 Elul 5775
    New York City

  2. I was so overwhelmed with emotion, that I wrote a fast response, and did not read it afterwards. I repeated, “stunning work.” As a writer, that bugs me, as a human being, it leaps out from the page, and says to me, “yes, yes, yes, say it twice, say it over and over – it was stunning!”

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