Beyond the barricades

IssueJune - July 2021
Comment by Ambrose Musiyiwa

Large parts of 2015 were dominated by images of people packed into wooden fishing boats and rubber dinghies trying to get to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.

There were images of people, including unaccompanied children, making impossible journeys on foot.

There were images of people climbing over razor wire in Europe, and police forces in different countries using batons and teargas against people at the border.

Months before the image of Alan Kurdi’s body on a beach in Turkey made it onto the front pages of most newspapers in Europe, soul-destroying images of dead toddlers washing up on Europe’s shores were circulating on social media.

On Facebook, my friends and I responded to what we were seeing by writing. A lot of the reflections were poetry.

I suggested we put together a poetry anthology that could be sold to raise funds for groups that were conducting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and groups working with people seeking refuge in the UK.

Three poets volunteered to be editors, and, a few months later, Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge came out from Five Leaves, an independent publisher and bookshop based in Nottingham.

The anthology raises funds for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders, the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum, and Leicester City of Sanctuary.

Now, I co-ordinate ‘Journeys in Translation’, an international volunteer-driven initiative that is translating poems from the anthology into other languages.

In Leicester, a friend and I regularly took part in ‘Everybody’s Reading’, an annual festival of reading which offered people small grants to put on community events related to reading and writing. Each year, we devised new ways to promote the anthology.

In one year, we picked 10 poems from the anthology and turned them into postcards which we gave out in the main concourse at the train station in Leicester.

The following year, over a cup of coffee in a local cafe, we came up with the idea to encourage people to translate, in whole or in part, a selection of poems from the anthology into other languages.

As a result of the initiative, over a 12-month period, more than 10 percent of the anthology was translated into over 20 languages. These include: Arabic, Assamese, Bengali, British Sign Language, Chinese, Dutch, Farsi, Filipino, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Irish Gaelic, Italian, Jamaican Patois, Polish, Romanian, Shona, Spanish, Turkish and Welsh.

Countries that translators were based in include: Argentina, Austria, Britain, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Mozambique, Poland, Romania and Zimbabwe.

In the UK, one artist illustrated the poems using drawings and etchings; a group of musicians gave one of the poems a musical treatment; and a musician fused two of the poems and turned them into a song.

In Greece, artists who work with a project that supports women looking for refuge turned one of the poems into a video poem.

In Italy, over the course of two years, Pietro Deandrea, a lecturer at the University of Turin, and his students translated Over Land, Over Sea into Italian.

Per terra e per mare: Poesie per chi è in cerca di rifugio, which emerged from these efforts, was published by CivicLeicester in 2020. It is being sold to raise funds for Mosaico: Azioni per i rifugiati (Mosaic: Action for Refugees, Torino), Watch The Med Alarm Phone, and After18 (Leicester).

Per terra e per mare is going to be followed by a Romanian translation of the anthology, which, in turn, will be followed by other translations.

The mainstream media is no longer showing images, like those we saw in 2015, of people making impossible journeys over land and over sea, trying to reach places of safety,

The hope is that, as the poems from Over Land, Over Sea migrate into other languages, they will remind people in Europe that there is still a crisis of leadership in Europe around migration.

Europe continues to make it very difficult for people to reach – and seek refuge on – the continent. The hope is that the poems will encourage more people in more countries to continue reaching out, in word and in deed, to people on the move and to those seeking refuge.

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