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Let the Poet Warsan Shire Tell You About the ‘Bravest Girl in the World’

Shire teams up with actress Tessa Thompson to show the world what it's like to be a teen girl at the Dadaab Refugee Camp.

Shire teams up with actress Tessa Thompson to show the world what it’s like to be a teen girl at the Dadaab Refugee Camp.

At the moment, 68.5 million people are displaced around the globe. Half of them are women, with families and relatives to care for and unique dangers to contend with. When we talk about refugees in the United States, they tend to be invoked in debates on the news—and then forgotten about until the next time their situation turns dire enough to make headlines.

But the British Somali poet Warsan Shire tries her best to keep them three-dimensional. Red-blooded. Human.

Born to Somali parents in Kenya, Shire is responsible for the line that’s become a motto and a battle call for refugees and their advocates: “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark.” (She’s also the writer whose poems were sampled on Beyoncé’s Lemonade album.)

The poet Warsan Shire/Leyla Jeyte

Since her own girlhood, she’s addressed issues of migration and displacement. In one of her best-known works, she writes: “later that night / i held an atlas in my lap / ran my fingers across the whole world / and whispered / where does it hurt? / it answered / everywhere / everywhere / everywhere.”

In honor of International Women’s Day, Shire teamed up with the International Rescue Committee in partnership with Girl Rising to produce a short film that speaks to the realities that refugees face and the ones that affect girls in particular. Brave Girl Rising is based on the real life events of Nasro, a 17-year-old Somali refugee who’s grown up in the Dadaab Refugee Camp. She stars in the film, which Shire wrote. Shire is judicious about her collaborations, not just because she’s protective of her time and attention but because she has no social media presence and is reluctant to talk to the press about her work. (It speaks for itself—loudly.) But when Girl Rising approached her, she didn’t hesitate. “I knew it would be a massive opportunity to bring light and awareness to girls in Somalia,” she says. “And I’m always looking for the opportunity to do something more important with my work.”

Tessa Thompson, who narrates the short with David Oyelowo, told Glamour she signed on to the film in the hopes that it would inspire audiences to stand up and demand action: “In fighting for equal rights here in the United States, we cannot forget the millions of refugee women and girls around the world who face gender inequalities every day.”

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The sheer magnitude of the crisis is hard to take in, and Shire knows just how fast a person can feel powerless. But Girl Rising chief creative officer Martha Adams, who co-directed the film, cautions against helplessness. “The refugee crisis is staggering but the truth is we have a solution,” she says. “When you prioritize girls’ education and life-skills programs, nations stabilize and prosper.”

Girl holding poster Quyen Tran/Girl Rising

But the film isn’t a PSA. Instead it delves deep into Nasro’s life and explores how she sees the world around her. Despite the circumstances, she finds hope. “Love always finds a way to exist,” Thompson narrates at one point in the short. “May we find love everywhere we go.”

Here, Shire tells Glamour how she developed her script, what she does when she misses home, and how she learned the power of stories. Brave Girl Rising is available to stream now.

Glamour: Your work speaks to political circumstances, and I think the reason this film resonates is because it uses storytelling to talk about what is a political and social situation. When did you realize poetry had that power?

Warsan Shire: I learned that really, really early. I grew up in the 1990s in London when the Somali civil war was at its height. The news was always on, so we grew up with the backdrop of hearing the statistics, seeing the photos. We would see a lot of poverty porn, a lot of really grotesque images without any humanity in them.

Then we would hear stories, get letters, tapes, and photographs, get phone calls from relatives who were still stuck there and in different parts of the world. The juxtaposition was enormous. We had lost so many people in the war, and that was a real example of how statistics could not show the true story that was going on.

Somali people are often called the nation of poets because poetry is interwoven into our daily communication. My grandmother would send tapes to us. Lots of families would send tapes, and there would always be some poetry on them to describe what they were going through. It wasn’t a lot of effort; it was so natural—that’s how people communicated. I understood from them that the way you use language and communicate will always be much more powerful than statistics or photographs. As human beings, we all connect through shared experiences—loneliness, comfort. It’s not different from when you’re going through a war or through a displacement or some extreme grief. Words are comforting.

What was it like to work with Nasro and to have a relationship with her?

WS: It was a really beautiful and affirming process. It was really healing for me to be in communication with Nasro. We Skyped quite a lot, and that’s how I got to speak to her and learn about her and that’s how she got to learn about me. We became good friends, and it was a massive reminder for me [about where I come from] because I’m having a difficult time in my own life, for different reasons. It was emotional and difficult. You struggle with this idea of how easily you could’ve swapped places with someone who is in a completely different situation but is from the same background. It makes you very grateful, but at the same time you feel a lot of guilt.

I think a lot of people who come from refugee and immigrant backgrounds do have that survivors’ remorse. And so it was good to be able to do something with it, to bring light to her story, to bring awareness to it. I think looking away is in itself a sin and it’s our responsibility to be witnesses, even if we can’t do anything concrete about it. At least be a witness to what people are going through.

The film talks about the relationship between mothers and daughters and the sacrifice that women make for each other. What impact have those relationships had on your life?

WS: I was raised by a single mother, and the Somali culture is very matriarchal. Like many other cultures, we suffer from problems of misogyny, but it’s still a matriarchal community. I think it’s a double-edged sword too because a lot of the responsibilities fall upon the women, naturally. Here my mother dealt with being in a new country, being a young mother, not being able to speak the language, feeling depressed, not having enough money.

You’re a mother to your own mother; sometimes you’re a mother to yourself.

I’m also the eldest daughter, and I think I share this with a lot of eldest daughters in refugee communities; we take on the weight and we’re never really able to let it go. You’re a mother to your own mother; sometimes you’re a mother to yourself. A lot of my friendships have been almost maternal; we take care of one another, look out for one another. Female friendship is not widely represented in the media or popular culture because it’s obviously more fun for people to see women at each other’s throats, but the reality is that the women in my life have always held me down [grounded me] and had my back. That’s very visible in the work I create because it’s true to my life.

What the film does well is highlight both the experiences that girls all over the world have in common and the terrible, particular difficulties and threats that a girl like Nasro faces. How much of girlhood is a shared experience?

WS: Being a girl is always difficult. It’s a strange rite of passage, and being a woman in this world is difficult. But there’s a massive difference between what it feels like to be a woman in [America or England] and where Nasaro is. And a girl’s [experience] will be different too, based on her race, her socioeconomic background, how much education she has. Does she have people in her life to support her? What part of the world is she in? What resources does she have access to? That will decide what her life will be like.

In The New Yorker, Alexis Okeowo wrote that your work “evokes longing for home,” which I think is true. When you feel that ache for home, what do you do?

WS: I feel that every day of my life. For me, home is Somalia. I’m living in L.A. now, but London was home for a really long time, and now I’m living in America under Trump. So it’s double. I miss London, but I miss home home, which is Africa. It’s really important for me to listen to old Somali music and to speak in my mother tongue. It gives me a lot of pride. I like looking at old photographs of Somalia. I love to eat Somali food. I love to put on Somali incense. It’s all the time reminding myself a little bit of where I’m from, and the richness of it. Because it’s very easy to not do that and then you forget—how to cook, how to speak the same language, the comedy, the music.

I don’t want to grow older in different parts of the world and forget all the things that bring me a lot of joy, so I spend a lot of time on YouTube looking for Somali videos. And whenever I want to connect with London, I hope for rain. It’s rainy today in L.A., and it always makes me feel comforted. I just have to stay connected so I don’t forget where I’m from.

It can feel like time travel a bit, to surround yourself with those memories of home.

WS: Yes, definitely. That’s a big help for writing as well. If I want to write about my teenage years, I’ll go back and listen to all the music I listened to and look at photographs of myself back in the day, and I’ll even ask my mom to send me old clothes from London. It’s like a time machine.

International Women’s Day can feel a little two-dimensional, I think. Because so much of it takes “place” online. I’m sure people will see the film and read articles about it. But then what? Do you have advice for people who want to do something with the pain or emotion that they feel?

WS: I’m interested in the ways in which human beings are able to practice empathy, so my recommendation would be to read books written by different women from different backgrounds you don’t know anything about, watch films made by women all over the world, not just by women who look like you.

Think about women from different parts of the world, trans women, poor women, black women, women in prisons, women in shelters, women all over the world, women and girls in refugee camps. The world is so massive, but we forget that all the time.

And try to practice empathy. Think about how massive the world is and how small your life is in comparison to that. Think about what it means to be a woman. Think about how you want to bring awareness to the suffering of other people. Think about women from different parts of the world, trans women, poor women, black women, women in prisons, women in shelters, women all over the world, women and girls in refugee camps. The world is so massive, but we forget that all the time.

I see what you mean about it how it can feel a little flat. As human beings we tend to look away from difficult things, and a lot of my work has to do with leaning into that and finding the beauty and hope and resiliency in it. I just think a lot of sharing has to happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This article is republished from Glamour. Read the article here.

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