Poems by and about Refugees

By Dr. Ingrid Kerkhoff – Pluck Us From the Water Like Oily Birds: Alemu Tebeje Ayele, “Greetings to the People of Europe!”

alemutebeje_bildcollage In contrast to reality photos which are often intrusive, this graphic comes closer to an illustration of the idea Alemu Tebeje focuses on in his poem.

“Greetings to the People of Europe!” was originally written in Amharic, then translated into English by Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje and published in MPT Magazine 2016 Number 1 – The Great Flight. It challenges the credibility of Christian charity:

Over land and sea, your fathers came to Africa
and unpacked bibles by the thousand,
filling our ancestors with words of love:
if someone slaps your right cheek,
let him slap your left cheek too!

Now, their children’s children, inheriting the words their fathers left behind, are braving the seas in leaky boats:

let salt winds punch our faces and your coast-guards
pluck us from the water like oily birds!

The poem is an appeal to take the traditional values seriously when refugees who had managed to survive the crossing are knocking on Europe’s front door:

hoping against hope that you remember
all the lovely words your fathers preached to ours

Read the text in full here.


In the end the question remains: Is there a point in hoping against hope?

Finding a Whole Country in a Clenched Hand: Hama Tuma, “Just a Nobody”

hamatuma_fotomontage-300x188Collage: Hama Tuma reading “Just a Nobody” and lines from his poem.

In his poem Hama Tuma (better: his narrator) meditates on the stories of refugees stranded in the Mediterranian off the Libyan coast and what might happen in the minds – and hearts – of people who rescued their bodies.

About Hama Tuma

Hama Tuma (born 1949) is an Ethiopian political activist, a poet and writer in the Amharic and English languages. Born in Addis Ababa, he studied Law in Addis Ababa University and became an advocate for democracy and justice. This has caused him to be banned by three different Ethiopian governments. Tuma currently lives in Paris.

The poem

“Just a Nobody”  …  was published in MPT, The Great Flight.

The dead man was no one,
just a man in tattered clothes,
no shoes, …

This dead man had just a coin in his pocket, no id card, no bus ticket, which might have thrown some light on his identity. He was a nobody, dirty and skinny:

a no one, a nobody
who clenched his hand before he died.

And then the rescuers opened his clenched fist:

When they pried open his fingers,
this nobody,
they found a whole country.

Read the text in full here.


As all poetry, in particular poetry with a political edge, Hama Tuma’s poem leaves open who opens the fingers of the „nobody“ and who “found a whole country” and what could possibly follow from this realization.

Hama Tuma’s work is underrated. An early example is his book The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and other stories, Heinemann, 1993. (see Contents). In the story “The Case of the Prison-Monger‘, he tells the story of an Ethiopian intellectual who describes himself as a prison maniac. Each time he comes out of prison he commits a crime. (Read the story online) For more information on Hama Tuma you might want to go to his Website.

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