Podcast 2: Poetic Justice


Welcome to the MOAS podcast where we want to include you in what we do, to explore different angles of migration, and help you to better understand the people we save.

Every fortnight we will bring you updates on our mission, tell you about the technologies we use, interview experts to discuss wider forced migration issues, and, most importantly, share with you the stories and experiences of the people we rescue.

This week we’re talking to mysterious poet Brian Bilston about his upside-down poem ‘Refugees’ and Professor Rochelle Davis about her research into men fleeing conscription in Syria.

To commemorate World Poetry Day MOAS spoke to proclaimed ‘Poet Laureate of Twitter’ Brian Bilston about his influential work ‘Refugees’.

Within months the poem had been shared by more than ten thousand people, among them UNHCR’s Melissa Fleming.

In twenty-four simple lines we’re invited to read, re-read and challenge the negative images of refugees.

Brian began by telling us what inspired him…

Brian Bilston photo

What inspired you to write your poem ‘Refugees’?

Curiously the refugee crisis itself wasn’t really the starting point for the poem. I’d always been interested in poetic forms and for a while I’d been wanting to write a poem that you could read in two different ways inspired by a poem called ‘The Lost Generation’ written by Jonathan Reed. What was really interesting about that was that you could read it in two different ways and it changed its meaning when read in reverse. I’m usually known for writing rather, well supposedly humorous verse and I couldn’t really find the right topic to fit with the poet form. So I was struggling with this for several months and meanwhile I guess the refugee crisis was worsening, there were daily stories in the press on the news in the evening, on social media and I think eventually dawned on me particularly when I saw some of the reaction to some of these kind of tragic heartbreaking stories that were breaking in the news, the reaction on social media, that the refugee crisis was like a perfect topic for that treatment in that kind of forwards – backwards poetic form.

What is the message or meaning you are trying to convey?

Well it’s a couple of things I mean, firstly, it does acknowledge that people respond in different ways to many things but in this case the refugee crisis but its also a real call for people to listen to each other and see that there is more than one way of looking at things. My own sympathies very heavily lie, as it were, in the reverse of the poem and I think the structure of the poem makes it more, makes it more powerful when the words are turned on their head as it were.

Why do you think it is that poetry lends itself to illiciting empathy or calls to action compared to other forms of literature?

Yeah.. that’s a good question. I think for one, poems when well written have a kind of immediacy that sometimes other forms of literature don’t. I think particularly given the length of many poems, there’s something, particularly nowadays when people don’t have much time, they spend their days looking at their social media feed which gives them kind of bite-sized nuggets of information and jokes and emotions etc. Poetry kind of like the perfect way of consuming that within a social media context. I think particularly things like Twitter kind of really help a poem to come through that simply a longer piece of writing wouldn’t.

How has it been received?

Well incredibly so and I kind of wrote it and sent it out there like I do with many other poems not really having any idea that it would any more or less popular than anything else I’d written before but my Twitter notifications almost instantly went rather crazy. I think within the first couple of days I think it had been re-tweeted about 10,000 times and lots of very high profile people had read it and forwarded it on to their own followers. So that was rather unusual for a poem to have that kind of big impact and it also even got written up in places like the Independent and the Huffington Post. That was about a year ago, but ever since then there’s been a steady stream of people getting in touch, people wanting to use to make videos of it, its been made into a rap, there have been football clubs in Sweden who have recited it an annual evening with their supporters, all weird and wonderful uses its been put to.

Why such a strong reaction do you think?

I think its rather a simple poem. The words themselves are simple straightforward so that anyone can follow it, can understand it, its not difficult like some poetry can be. But also I think the conceit of it, the way the whole argument gets turned on its head. People seem to be very taken with that. It’s been one of things that I’ve loved about the reception is how children have taken it up and its been used a lot in the classroom, its had a lot of engagement with teenagers. I think its partly that simplistic and partly the trick but also that trigger turning that makes, as it were, the right reading of the words seem even more powerful I think.

You can listen to the full poem on the podcast pages below.

Professor Rochelle Davis talks now about conscription and its impact on migration.

Next Professor Rochelle Davis talks below about conscription and its impact on migration.


Imagine this.

You’re male aged between 18 and 45 and your country is at war with itself.

Everyday you risk being recruited to fight for a regime you may or may not agree with. You’ll be attacking people you once called friends and family. There’s no way of knowing if or even when you’ll be allowed to leave.

So what do you do? Hide at home and take your chances or do you escape to somewhere the government can’t get you?

For Professor Rochelle Davis, 100s of 1000s of Syrian men are fleeing their homes because they refuse to fight but they don’t get the same protections as refugee women and children.

Well, the research that I conducted was just interviewing people who had fled Syria. We had about 150 interviews with people in Jordan and Lebanon and then I’ve done other less formal interviews in Turkey and in Europe and elsewhere. So it was just interviewing people generally with a number of open ended questions to learn about people’s lives, what life had been like before they fled Syria and what their lives were like today. O ne of the topics that I thought was the most pressing that came out of this was that there were all these men fleeing conscription and nobody was talking about it. I mean at the time when we did the work back in the 2012 and 2013… because I speak Arabic and because I know Syria fairly well it struck me because this was a really important topic because people were fleeing because they didn’t want to fight, they didn’t want to kill other Syrians, they didn’t want to be engaged in this and yet nobody was addressing them as human beings with choices who were choosing not to fight and instead the international focus was on women and children, which is great, women and children need protection too but so do men and to me, if men are the ones doing the fighting and being forced to fight and you have this huge number, I mean 100s of 1000s of people who don’t want to fight and yet we’re not paying attention to that or listening to them we’re really doing a disservice to people but also too.. I think we’re playing a role in the continuation of this fighting, we should be encouraging people to leave, encouraging particularly men who would be dragged into the fighting to leave, because if the regime doesn’t have people to fill its army it can’t keep this up.

How much of life, employment and social mobility as a Syrian man is linked to military service?

In normal times…every Syrian carries around a number of documents in addition to their identity card and Syrian men carry around what they call daf-dar-jaysh which is the military service card. So for a lot of job and a lot of government services and all those sorts of things people had to provide this card that proved they had done their military service or they had an exemption or they were still studying or things like that. So those documents are still important and if you don’t have them then you can’t all sorts of things including getting government jobs etc. So there’s that very legalistic element of serving in the military but on a whole other element about social mobility. I mean if you haven’t served in the military you’re basically wanted by the Syrian regime and so you can’t move around your country, you can’t move around your city anymore if you’re wanted by the regime and so there’s no way for people who haven’t done their military service to live a life of any kind. So either they have two choices, they maybe have three choices. They stay at home and never leave the house which is not guaranteed because the Syrian regime will come knocking on doors and search homes for people or they go into the military or they flee to non-government controlled areas by that’s not a particularly safe place to be because the government bombs those areas or they leave the country and so those are the three choices in front of men who are between the ages of 18, particularly ones who haven’t done their military service and now we’re hearing more cases of men who have finished their military service but are being kept in the reserves, that they can be called up at any time or their name is on a checkpoint and someone has decided that they need 10,000 more men and so they are going to take the first 10,000 that they get who are reservists, they will be taken too at any time. So there isn’t really a way for men in Syria who are of military age to live their lives comfortably unless they have a government job or are of a high enough social class to avoid being taken or to be able to pay bribes.

You say that there is a stigma or stereotype used to define Syrian men fleeing to neighboring countries as potential threats, instigators of trouble… How has this stigma developed?

Well I think this is part of a larger global narrative that has developed around Middle Eastern men and Muslim men and so they are seen as a threat, they are seen as a coercive and backwards and willing to fight and they’re seen as potential terrorists. So I think that this idea that young men in particular who are un-anchored from families are much more willing to become extremists and do extreme things. And while statistically that’s probably true it paints them such a broad brush that it doesn’t actually look at the reasons why they fled or the very principled and very difficult decisions they made to leave behind they country, leave behind their families and their loved ones and their friends in order to not participate in violence in order to not participate in picking up arms and killing other people. One of the things that strikes me is we’re very aware of these kinds of non-violence in many countries across the world and we’re trying to push people towards more non-violence and these men have chosen not to be violent, they’ve chosen non-violence as a path and yet we don’t respect them as individuals for those choices. So it’s that stigmatization of them as Middle Easterners and them as Muslim men and that’s what they kind of fall under. The stigma carries into the surrounding countries around it, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey…less so Iraq, Iraq has many more Syrian men in it than it does Syrian women by sort of ten percent. But I think in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey they also see many of them as un-anchored to families so they’re not with their parents or brothers and sisters and so that also sort of dangerous, sort of young men…they see them as not anchored to society, not tied to society.’

Has your research achieved its objective?

‘There’s a mixed answer to that. In some cases, I think there has been certainly in Europe a move to not immediately throw young men out because they are young men…Syrians who are fleeing the conflict have been allowed to stay, Syrian young men who are fleeing conflict have been allowed to stay but its not because they are young men it is because they are Syrians. So I think in that sense that the issues that they face have not really been addressed around the globe…I just don’t think there has been an awareness that forced conscription is a reason why people flee and instead they get just seen as their demographic as young men or men…and so no, I mean I guess the ultimate answer is no I don’t think its been taken into consideration or addressed in a way. There’s still very little programming for men in the International Communities, areas where they deal with refugees. There are a few areas where they target young men for interventions but there’s still by far the least served community among refugees.’

You can listen to the full interview in the links below.

Brian Bilston Refugees Poem

They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or I
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way

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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained.