TRYING to outrun the sound of gunfire, heart pounding, praying for change and looking for safety … from the moment 11-year-old Rohingya refugee Mohd Feroz Said Alam smiles at the audience at the Migrant and Refugee Poetry Competition 2017 and launches into his poem The Runner, we’re all right there with him.
Held rapt by the juxtaposition of powerful words and compelling imagery, in the simple, matter-of-fact delivery of a child, the audience holds its breath and roots for the seeker of safety and identity.
Feroz’s words are for his father, who had to flee his homeland of Myanmar to escape the persecution of the Rohingyas. They echo a reluctance to constantly be “the boy who runs”.
Feroz’ father and his family don’t have to run anymore. Today, they live in Gombak, where his father works as a gas cylinder delivery man. But young Feroz still wonders: why are humans so cruel to each other?
A little later, in the same fluorescent tube-lit room, Syrian Mohd Mwaffaq Alhajjar, changes the cadence of our breath in a different way.
Asia’s first stanzas conjure images of a “mesmerising brunette gracefully asleep on the fence of memory”, in a sensuous paean to a beautiful woman in a satin dress, whom he once saw on a train.
But halfway through, there is a segue as his lens widens to encompass discovery of his current adopted home of Malaysia, his new region of Asia – and his poem then becomes simultaneously an ode to a “pearl of mother earth”, a weary nod that “a traveller’s path is forever exhausting” and a tremulous question as to whether his love will be embraced.
Mwaffaq was faced with the prospect of obligatory active military duty in conflict-ridden Syria. “I didn’t want to have to kill,” he said simply, so he had to leave – which also meant being unable to work full-time in his field.
“I have been writing poetry since I was 12, and active on the theatre scene since I was 18,” said Mwaffaq, 25. “I was looking for a platform here, and I found the Refugee Festival earlier this year, which led me to this.”
“Now I’m working on a book of poetry about Syrian culture, and how it can be merged with Asian cultures, with Sinbad the sailor as my main character.”
Feroz and Mwaffaq both found resonance with the judges of the competition on Sunday, going on to sweep top honours in the junior (12 and under) and adult categories respectively.
“It’s important for people to remember that migrants and refugees are not so different – we all have our own cultures, and there is beauty in them,” said Mwaffaq.
And while the voices at the competition illuminated the realities of both migrant workers and refugees in many cases they also peeled them back to reveal the deeper truth of an underlying and common humanity.
A growing platform
The competition was first held in Malaysia in 2015, a year after founder Shivaji Das had the first one in Singapore – at the time, its focus was on migrant workers.
At first part of the Cooler Lumpur Festival in KL, it went independent last year and expanded its focus to include refugees. This year, it drew 74 entries, with the youngest entrant just six years old; nine children and 14 adults were selected as finalists.
It’s open to all languages, but an English translation is provided for judges. The finals were judged by local literary personalities Bernice Chauly, Sharon Bakar, Anindita Dasgupta and Looi Siew Teip.
This year, partners included the UNHCR, the Canadian High Commission in Malaysia, The Good Shop, Help University, NGOs like Tenaganita and the Malaysian Social Research Institute, KL Writer’s Workshop, Dutch foundation I Dem Vende and poetry podcast Poet X.
“The greatest importance of the competition is in the voice it provides to competitors,” said Das. “While many other events have them as ‘recipients’, in this case they are the ‘donors’, sharing with the audience.”
Junior category contestant Chani Ta Chun agrees. “Poetry is something that you have to figure out the answer to yourself,” she said – and so it allows you to express yourself in a way that prose doesn’t.
The 12-year-old – whose family fled Cambodia when her father was shot and injured by government forces – was happy to win third place in the junior category, but said it would have been perfectly ok if she didn’t win.
“I just wanted people to hear my words even if I was trembling the whole time,” she said.
The reality of leaving home
“While last year many of the poems focused on love, this year there were more poems about desperation and hopelessness, living as a refugee or migrant,” said Das. They were about people who have to leave home – whether driven by economic circumstances, war or persecution.
“What governments don’t understand is that poverty is the root of where migrant workers come from,” said Figo Kurniawan. The 42-year-old construction worker, journalist and poet was born in East Java, and has worked in Malaysia for 10 years now.
“None of us would leave our homes if we could feed our children, if we could survive in our kampungs. Our story is not about law and regulations; our story is one of humanity and struggles.”
He captured the fear and helplessness – of many undocumented migrants especially – in his poem Behind the Bushes, which was riddled with the desperation of having survival hinge on the ability to remain invisible.
A different kind of helplessness resounded in Saima Ameena Shah’s untitled ghazal, the only entry which was sung instead of recited – and which took second place in the adult category.
Once a banker in her native Pakistan, Saima, 35, wanted to write about the helplessness one feels when self-expression is denied. “It’s a poem about love, feeling so deeply about the things that happen around you, but maybe not being able to put that into words,” she said.
“And I thought I’d sing because even if people couldn’t understand my words, they would be able to get the feelings in my voice.”
Saima is from a group persecuted in her native country.
“In 2015, they burned our house down, and we had to run,” she said.
In spite of this, she retains an air of hope and her poem ends on one too, with “Uproot and discard all grudges from your heart /Making sure they never find a footing again /This is the very secret of a happier life, which is garnishing every moment”.
“It’s natural to miss the place you belonged to, but change is part of life, and my three daughters are happy here,” she said.
It was also apparent just how much commonality there is among people from different countries, communities and situations – and poetry proved the perfect bridge.
Third place winner in the adult category, Desi Larasati, 26, wrote a piece called If You Do not Find My Grave On The Porch, which deals with losing a loved one far away.
“I was thinking about my father when I wrote it, but also, all our fathers,” said Desi.
She comes from a family of farmers, and is only able to go back to see her parents and siblings every two years.
While Desi works as a domestic helper here in Malaysia, she is also a published author and is currently studying via Open University Indonesia, majoring in Sociology.
Her multi-layered piece exposed the very real fear that the last goodbye you had might very well be the last – and that’s a fear that many, migrant or not, can identify with.
For Desi, writing is a way to open up her world. “As a domestic helper, you can be quite confined to the house, and writing allows you to create a whole world,” she said.
The Migrant and Refugee Poetry Competition is important, because people are important. Its value lies not just with the contestants, although the confidence and heart that it imbues are wonderful.
For the audience though, it provides open and often rare insight into lives that are very different from our own – and so as the contestants grow as writers and poets, the audience gets to grow in humanity and understanding.
“We were incredibly moved by the poems,” said Sharon, as one of the judging panelist. “And that made judging very hard. But I hope all the contestants continue writing. We really need your stories out in the world.”
Voices of the Displaced: Poems from the Malaysian Migrant Poetry Competition 2015-2016, an anthology of poems from the previous competitions, is now available via pre-order from Gerakbudaya.