What is The Poetry Project?

The Poetry Project | Foto © Rottkay
Shahzamir Hataki | Photo © Rottkay

We are a four-language poetry project, setting up writing groups all over Germany in which young people with or without a refugee background can meet. We write in Farsi, Arabic, German and English. We give a forum to the poetic dialogue created in this way by organising public readings and publishing selected texts from each writing group.

Why do we do this?

The Poetry Project | Foto © Rottkay
Kahel Kaschmiri | Photo © Rottkay

In 2015–16, when hundreds of thousands of people came to Europe from war zones, a few friends in Berlin thought about how we will all live together in the future. The aim was to overcome foreignness. To use poetry as a bridge seemed to be a good beginning.

What do we want?

The Poetry Project | Foto © Rottkay
Herbert Grönemeyer, Samiullah Rasouli | Photo © Rottkay

We want to activate democratic forces in Germany, to promote the interaction between welcome classes and normal school classes, but also between young refugees in residential homes and their neighbourhoods. We want to support mutual understanding between those who grew up here and new arrivals, so that this country will remain as free and open as it is today. 

By reading their moving texts in public, the young authors authentically convey their experiences. In their poems, many of these young people work with their experiences of violence and war, feelings of fear and loneliness. To these are added hopeful thoughts of a better future, and reports of encounters that are marked by understanding and sympathy. 

We want to encourage people to listen to them and open their eyes to them – not to report on them but to give them a forum for their own diverse voices.

How it all began

The Poetry Project | Foto © Rottkay
Samiullah Rasouli | Photo: Rottkay

On journeys in Afghanistan, the initiator, SPIEGEL foreign correspondent Susanne Koelbl, repeatedly had the opportunity to experience the magic of poetry in Persian culture. In cooperation with Aarash D. Spanta, a lawyer and translator who grew up in Afghanistan, she invited young refugees to take part in a poetry workshop, at first for those from Farsi-speaking regions. As these new arrivals did not yet speak much German, support from a native speaker was the key to mutual understanding.

The focus was on minors who fled to Germany unaccompanied, i.e. on those who had to start a new life in a foreign country without friends and family. As it was mainly male youths who were sent on the long journey to Europe, the first writing group consisted entirely of young men: Ali Ahmade (15), Ghani Ataei (16), Mahdi Hashemi (16), Shahzamir Hataki (16), Kahel Kashmiri (15), Mohamad Mashghdost (18), Yasser Niksada (14) and Samiullah Rasouli (17).

They wrote poems about what happened to them on their flight. Nine months later, the young men published their moving texts in the Berlin anthology The Poetry Project – Allein nach Europa (The Poetry Project – Alone to Europe) and read them to a large audience at the 16th Berlin International Literature Festival. The enthusiastic response that they received encouraged them to continue.

Since then, dozens of writing groups have been established in various German cities, including Cologne, Frankfurt, Nuremberg and many others, and more and more young poets are presenting their work at readings and festivals.

How does The Poetry Project work?

The Poetry Project | Foto © Rottkay
Aarash D. Spanta | Photo © Rottkay

Since December 2015, young people all over Germany have been meeting regularly with workshop facilitators and translators to write poems.

They write in their native language about subjects that move us all. About the young people’s experiences, their expectations, their ideas for the future. About foreignness and longing, about hope and love, and not least about current politics. At the end of a workshop day, all read out their works, and together we often struggle to ascertain how a certain place in the text, a word or a particular phrase, may be meant, in order to find the most suitable translation.

These are wonderful moments of mutually recognising and being recognised, for which we are looking for public platforms. The poems that emerge from the workshops are presented at readings and festivals, and in magazines, radio items, dramas and films, so that as many people as possible can take part in this continuing intercultural dialogue. A first volume of poems, our anthology, was published in early 2018. In the same years, the Else Lasker-Schüler Poetry Prize was awarded to the texts printed there. In 2019 more young poets received the THEO - Berlin-Brandenburg Prize for Young Literature in the categories poetry and linguistic spaces.