Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
1903x558-PoetryAnthology ;

Poetry by Sanctuary Seekers: The impact of the asylum process on mental health

Understanding the mental health impacts of the asylum process is more important than ever in the UK context. The UK Government brought in the Nationality and Borders Bill this year, a law that undermines the rights of sanctuary seekers and creates even more mental health pressures. This can be most tangibly seen in the consequential policy to forcibly transfer boat arrivals to Rwanda. Numerous charities, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have highlighted the disastrous mental health consequences of this policy and lawyers have used mental health as a successful argument against removal to Rwanda. However, there needs to be more space for sanctuary seekers themselves to describe their mental health experiences, take control of their narrative and make demands about what needs to change with asylum policy. The poetry anthology I created with people seeking sanctuary does just that, and I am proud to share it for Refugee Week 2022.

In my research with people seeking sanctuary in the UK I found that the uncertainty, lack of future, and constant threat of asylum policies stripped people of their identity, deskilled them and left them hypervigilant for the next calamity to occur. At the same time, I found that people displayed an incredible resilience, patience and solidarity in the face of these pressures. Surviving and even thriving in the UK. Using verbatim words and phrases from interviews I conducted with Iranians and Afghans about the asylum process, I created poems.

The poems followed a culturally relevant poetry structure, the rubai. The rubai is a traditional four-line poetry structure used in Persian cultures and by famous Persian poets such as Mawlana (or Rumi) and Omar Khayaam. These poems informed my analysis and were shared with participants for amendments and approval. They describe the suffering and resilience of sanctuary seekers in a direct, emotive way. Artistic translations of research like this are crucial if we are to move beyond populist politics and build empathy with people seeking sanctuary.

780x440-PoetryAnthology
Yasin Moradi performing stand up at the Migrant Connections Festival 2021, Federico Rivas
The poems in the anthology intimately describe the mental health experiences of Iranians and Afghans during the asylum process. They talk about a lack of knowledge and information about the process and the fearful uncertainty this leads to […] However, they also tell a story of resilience, of wanting to be heard, demanding change in policy, and of incredible kindness to others in their situation.– Sohail Jannesari, Post-doctoral research associate, Health Service and Population Research (IoPPN)

Poems are a perfect way for many Iranian and Afghan sanctuary seekers to communicate their opinions and experiences on the asylum process because of their cultural and historic importance. During the Eleventh Century, Iran was under Arab occupation and the language of Persian ‘vehemently suppressed’ (Bekhrad, 2018). During this occupation, Ferdowsi completed the epic poetry book Shahnameh in Persian, the ‘longest poem ever written by a single author’, and helped maintain the Persian language through the occupation (ibid). Poetry, therefore, has helped preserve the Persian identity for almost a thousand years. Relatedly, Olszewska (2007) documents how Afghan refugees in Iran have used poetry to sustain their Afghan identity taking ‘pride both in their non-Iranian origins and in their common heritage with Iranians’ (p. 203). Olszewska further (2015) describes how poetry can be a way for Afghan refugees in Iran to process mental health problems.

Poems also makes sense in terms of mental health. My research found that indirect framings and metaphors, particularly around the weather, were used by Iranian and Afghan sanctuary seekers to talk about mental health. You can see this, and the importance of poetry as a mental health coping strategy, in Pegah’s poem below. Accordingly, the mental health impacts of migration can be indirectly discussed through mediums such as music (e.g. Lenette et al. 2016) and poetry (e.g. Norton and Sliep, 2019). Idioms can support willingness to communicate in foreign language teaching (e.g. Motlagh and Gilakjani, 2018) and mental health practitioners could explore whether a similar relationship might hold for mental health work with Iranians and Afghans. My research illustrated evidence of the mental health benefits that poetry activities with sanctuary seekers can bring (e.g. Migrants Organise, 2020.)

 

What Crime? - By Pegah

I became ill it was raining heavily

He was detained, what crime had he committed?

I was keen and would read Rumi’s poetry,

The river moves and things will finish quickly.

 

The poems in the anthology intimately describe the mental health experiences of Iranians and Afghans during the asylum process. They talk about a lack of knowledge and information about the process and the fearful uncertainty this leads to, the inability to act as knowledge providers due to restrictions on working and language difficulties, and how people’s futures are destroyed while waiting for an asylum decision. They provide very personal insights into the mental health effects of the deprivation people endure, for instance in unsanitary and isolated government-outsourced accommodation. However, they also tell a story of resilience, of wanting to be heard, demanding change in policy, and of incredible kindness to others in their situation. The poem below is by Syed Haleem Hajibi, and speaks partly to this point. Syed read out and explained this poem at the recent King’s Refugee, Mental Health and Place conference.

 

Our voices heard - By Syed Haleem Najibi 

Your future is on hold waiting for a decision

They do their job, to trick, to catch and make you lie

You remember again things you don’t want to vision

I want our voices heard and the system to listen

 

These poems are already making a difference across the country, being used in school workshops to talk about mental health, empathy and immigration. This Refugee Week, I ask you to read and share the Poetry by Sanctuary Seekers anthology, and to listen to its message.

Please support this work and contact me on Sohail.Jannesari@kcl.ac.uk if you want to be part of this journey.

References

Bekhrad. (2018). The Book of Kings. Retrieved, 12 April 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20180810-the-book-of-kings-the-book-that-defines-Iranians

Lenette, C., Weston, D., Wise, P., Sunderland, N., & Bristed, H. (2016). Where words fail, music speaks: the impact of participatory music on the mental health and wellbeing of asylum seekers. Arts and Health, 8(2), 125–139.

Migrants Organise. (2020). Unsaid, a poem by Denise Z. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://www.facebook.com/migrantsorganise/posts/unsaida-poem-by-denise-z-migrantsorganisethese-are-sayingswe-say-to-each-otherw/3913614708683671

Motlagh, H. B., & Gilakjani, A. P. (2018). Relationship between willingness to communicate and Iranian intermediate EFL learners’ use of English idioms. Malaysian Journal of ELT Research, 15(1), 0–0.

Norton & Sliep (2019) #WE SPEAK: exploring the experience of refugee youth through participatory research and poetry, Journal of Youth Studies, 22:7, 873-890.

Olszewska, Z. (2005). The poet’s melancholy. Medicine Anthropology Theory, 2(3), 83–104.

Olszewska, Z. (2007). “A desolate voice”: Poetry and identity among young afghan refugees in Iran. Iranian Studies, 40(2), 203–224. https://doi.org/10.1080/00210860701269550

In this story

Sohail Jannesari

Sohail Jannesari

Post-doctoral Researcher

Latest news