»Stay with me and see what happened to me. It has passed, but my heart is still marked,« wrote thirteen-year-old Yasser Niksada in December 2015 about his flight, which started with a people-trafficker in Iran. When Yasser noted down these lines, he was sitting in Freiraum in der Box in Berlin-Friedrichshain, and The Poetry Project had just been founded. Yasser drank cola, ate potato chips and recorded his story, in a poem.
Why in a poem?
In the oriental world, poetry enables people to express and read out their own experiences and feelings, even when they seem unspeakable at first. Even children are familiar with this art, because their elders tell them stories in verse form. The Poetry Project has taken advantage of this cultural phenomenon.
It all began in October 2015, when so many people came to Germany from regions of crisis – over a million in a few months. Syrians fled from murderous bombing by their own president. Afghans had received a promise from western powers that the Taliban would never return after the invasion of 2002. This promise was not kept.
Over a six-month period, three friends – an official of the UN, the lawyer and wonderful translator Aarash Spanta from Afghanistan and myself – went to temporary accommodation in Berlin at weekends and asked unaccompanied young refugees to write with us. We wanted to know where they came from, their story, who sent them. What happened to them as they fled, and how would life go on for them, in Germany?
At the end of December 2015, Yasser Niksada read his first poem about his flight on stage in public, in Farsi, along with six other young writers, and then read another about his difficult life in Iran. Actors spoke the texts in German. Yasser’s parents had sent him away. They had fled from war in Afghanistan themselves and were living as illegal workers in Tehran. Among the audience were participants in a symposium about Hannah Arendt. Yasser’s words, so childlike, hard and disturbing, went straight to the heart. A connection was made.
The first reading gave him goose pimples, said the Berlin artist Rottkay. The authentic power of the words convinced him immediately. Together we have made The Poetry Project into an art project across the whole Federal Republic of Germany. In the meantime, hundreds of refugees have written texts with us, and we have read them out in public all over Germany, at major literary festivals and on small stages in towns. These lyric dialogues have been curated and organised by Theresa Rüger, a specialist in literature studies whose support is a further stroke of good fortune for the project.
We want to hold up a mirror before those who never had to flee. How would we feel in a similar situation? The refugees have to learn almost everything anew, not only the language. After losing their homeland, many fall into a void, and are faced with the task of filling this vacuum.
Yasser Niksada will soon reach legal adulthood. He speaks German well, lives in shared accommodation in Berlin and is starting an apprenticeship as a car mechanic. This has always been his dream. We, he and the other young people who wrote the first texts back then, have become friends. We will continue to write this story, which is now our shared story.