No One Leaves Home Unless

Perhaps you harbor a memory like this, one that may have taken place on a busy street, or down a crowded mall concourse, in the maze of a department store or even a park: you walked with your child by your side, but something grabbed your attention and when you next looked down, your son or daughter was nowhere to be seen. Had your child simply wandered off, or been grabbed by a stranger? Do you remember the chilling fear of that moment, those anxious minutes before you found each other again?

Or maybe you have this memory lurking within: you were a small child at the mall with your parents. Something in a store caught your eye, and when you looked up, your mother and father were gone. Can you still recall, relive, the terror of that distant moment, when you were all alone, a lost child, even if only for a minute?

Imagine if that separation had lasted an hour, a day, a week, a month, forever.

What misery must thousands of men, women and children be going through right now on the southern border of our country? Asylum seekers have been forcibly separated from their children, their children live in fear and terror without their parents, and some of them are already effectively orphaned, because they will likely never be returned to their families.

Yesterday morning I found myself struggling with a mixture of anger and tears, as I read that infants and toddlers have been shipped to a small town in Texas, these children to be housed 20 to a tent. The temperature in the town that day was 106 degrees.

These tears of rage continued when I read that thousands of children will likely never be reunited with their parents, due to the chaotic and shambolic policy of our disgraceful government. Then I gave in to a “What-Has-Become-of-Our-Country” cry, followed by angry phone calls to the Department of Justice, the White House, and my two US senators. Later that day, my wife Alma and I attended a rally at the Rhode Island State House sponsored by March for Racial Justice RI, protesting the separation of migrant children from their parents.

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Surrounded by hundreds of angry people, we listened to outraged speeches, joined chants of solidarity, shouted “Boo!” or “No!” whenever needed, all of this a part of the necessary work of citizenship, because at times like this, we need to feel that we are not alone. Then one of the speakers read “Home,” a poem by Warsan Shire, and those same hundreds of people grew quiet.

Here is an excerpt:


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 toilet
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 . . .

Just as with all those speeches and our call-and-response shouting, once again we in the crowd felt united, but this was a different connection we shared. We were together as we listened, but also united in our individual responses to the impact of powerful art. The asylum seekers we had come to support were now far more than a political abstraction (however deeply felt), they had become living breathing people reacting to the horror of their lives exactly as we would respond, were we in the same situation.

You can read the entire text of this magnificent, moving poem here.

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Warsan Shire

Partisan passion is important in these times, we won’t survive this despicable Trump era without it, but art can deliver a deeper punch, one that weds understanding and empathy with political dedication. Listening to Shire’s poem I was reminded of another powerful work of art I’d recently read, the novel Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid.

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The novel begins in an unnamed Middle Eastern city, one that could be located in perhaps either Iraq or Syria. It’s an increasingly failed city in an increasingly failed state, a city that has daily become more and more dangerous to live in. A young couple, Nadia and Saeed, don’t know how they can remain any longer, and then they hear rumors of “portals” dotted about the city, a circle of escape that will instantly deliver a person to another and safer country.

They manage to locate people in the know, they pay the price, and Nadia is the first to step through:

“It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side, trembling and too spent at first to stand, and she thought, while she strained to fill her lungs, that this dampness must be her own sweat.”

Nadia and Saed’s rebirth, however, takes far longer than that brief passage. Leaving one’s country, it seems, entails finding the undiscovered country of oneself. And the world itself changes, as those portals proliferate across the globe, and the notion of borders begins to erase.

Hamid’s novel echoed in me as I later read yet another powerful work of art, Border, by Kapka Kassabova, who says this: “A crossroads appears twice in the mythical mind: when you travel and when you die. In both cases, you must make a choice that shapes your next destination.” In this nonfiction masterwork, Kassabova travels back and forth across the contemporary borders of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, borders that have morphed and altered innumerable times over the course of millennia, borders whose ancient (and not so ancient) wounds of displacement are still raw. And as she travels, she encounters people who could be Nadia and Saeed, ordinary yet desperate seekers of a better life, who are trying to cross the borders of Europe that are increasingly closed to them.

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Here in the US, we are struggling along our southern border to contend with people trying to escape the chaos of dysfunctional states in Central America. But we are doing so without the guidance of our better angels. What our government has decided upon is State-sponsored terrorism, conducted against families and targeting children. This crisis is hardly the first horror bestowed upon us by this monstrous administration, and it surely won’t be the last. Political action has become essential these days, exercising our right to vote is a necessity, and art can help frame and illuminate our commitment. In this way we might redeem our country’s promise, protect the traumatized lives of children from neighboring countries we’ve never met, and safeguard the future lives of the children we do know, in this country of ours that must not become completely unrecognizable.


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