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  1. A few years ago, travelling across Iran and Afghanistan, I was amazed by the social capital of poetry – its value outside the academic box it tends to get squeezed into in the west. I met farmers who could recite hundreds of verses while reaping their crops, former soldiers who had recited on the front-line to stir their comrades, political activists who had chanted medieval verses in demonstrations against their government. Now that spirit is coming to Europe.

      During workshops at the refugee education centre on Chios, BAAS, I worked with young Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis and students from many other countries, composing verses about a range of subjects. These included unrequited love, the desolation of losing family members, sexual betrayal, homesickness, surrealism. I've never been so convinced that poetry has value – listening to the verses as the students read them out, then teasing out translations, words batted back and forth across the table, we were digging inside each other's inner psyches, peeling back the skin, reaching towards each other. Sometimes it felt bruising, sometimes ecstatic, always human. The powerful feelings expressed by the students reinforced the depth and range of experiences so many of them have lived through. It's part of their struggle to find some kind of form, if not meaning, for what they have been through. Poetry is a powerful way of doing that.

      If you would like to see some examples of the refugees' poetry, take a look at the BAAS website: And if you would like to support the work of BAAS (which provides free education for young refuges), please consider sending a donation through: I know from my experience on Chios that it would be well spent.



  2. DSC_6430 For the last month, I have been working in a school for refugee children. The school is run from an old barber’s shop and a doctor’s surgery on the island of Chios, just a few miles from the Turkish coast, an island once famous for the mastic it supplied to the Ottoman sultans, and as the possible home of the epic poet Homer. More recently, it’s become known as one of the major landfalls for refugees fleeing persecution and war in the Middle East and Africa. The UNHCR, the Greek municipality and various NGOs work together to provide them basic shelter and provisions, but one fundamental human right was missing until a year ago - the provision of education.

      Which is where BAAS – ‘Be Aware and Share’ – fits in. Set up by a bunch of young activists from across Europe (with a base in Switzerland and volunteers from as far apart as Canada, Finland and Italy), the school is striving to provide the education for 6 to 18-year-old refugee children that the Greek state has so far failed to offer. For many of these children, stuck in the desperate conditions of the hastily-rigged camps, the school is a lifeline, offering respite from the nightmares they are still a long way from escaping.  

      I have met children who are deeply troubled, traumatised by the violence they have witnessed, suffering cognitive and concentration issues, teenagers struggling to cope with the loss of their families and the extinction of their childhoods, young adults shaking off their experiences in cities ruled by ISIS or the thugs of President Assad. The resilience of these children has often been as striking as the burden of what they have lived through. Many have developed an astonishing capacity for shaking off the past, and it’s so exciting to think what the future could hold for them, if only they could enjoy a small fraction of the luck and kindness most of us take for granted.

      During the classes I’ve held or attended, students have explored the universe, learned about gravity, built model spaceships, constructed a giant snake out of balloons, composed and recited poems about their experiences, taken their first steps in the English language, written letters to imaginary future employers. Sometimes it’s been frustrating, sometimes exhilarating, always intense. For many of the children I’ve met, this is their first school experience, after several years blighted by the infrastructural collapse of their home countries. On the other hand, there are some students already well advanced in education, with ambitions to be doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers, stretching towards the opportunities still tantalisingly out of reach. For many of the students, stuck in the awful conditions of the refugee camps, with weak hygiene, limited diet, extremes of temperature and community tensions, the school is a safe haven from the nightmare of life back home (whether home means a war-struck motherland, or the container unit or tent currently supplying shelter).

    BAAS School

      If you’re interested in helping young refugees, please do take a look at this link and consider giving something to Be Aware and Share, to support the work they are doing helping young refugees in their first difficult steps in Europe. I can tell you from my own experience that I know your contribution would make a difference.