With Open Arms I Have Heard

in Middle East by

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
                                                                                                         Warsan Shire


My father said I’d sink like a stone
to sleep at the bottom of the sea if
the boat died & went belly up.

Does he not know I have wings
stitched to my spine? Remnants
of a past, soaring above water.

My neighbor warned me not to drink
seawater, to fill my belly with sand,
a grain to kill the hunger, but

sand is no kawag or lakhma, & the salt
of the sea, feeds my agitated butterflies.

For instance, last night when our boat
stalled to spit water back at the sea, I swear
the sweet scent of ka’ak & hummus

lingered between the dark water & star-
lit sky, wetting lips & dry throats,
a cold-dead on the top of our tongues.

For a while, fear dressed as a shark
circled our boat. A ripple of shadows,
slapped against fiberglass, &

an uneasy silence, spawned a funeral
atmosphere, the stillness broken by weeping

& prayer, or by the thumping below: whipped
& beaten beggars, scratching at the floor,
the many unable to pay for fresh air.

My father said he will die crashed on his knees,
punching his fist into the earth that bore him.
I have no earth to fist nor soil to taste

& my knees & feet are laced with numbness,
crushed into the cave of my chest, sandwiched
between skins, drenched with urine and sweat.


It’s the first time a sunrise makes me weep,
the first time. Like a warm blanket it comes

covered in tiny crystals, wetting our hair.
& now we creep along again, the boat’s
susurration, heaving & wheezing,

struggling like an old man
up a hill, suffocating us with smoke,
& the sea disguised as a rocking horse, tries

to entertain, but no one is in the mood
& the small children are quiet, fewer.
My father says There is no kawag, no warm

lakhma in the north but I don’t believe him,
yet I must listen to his harsh tone, listen
to him, carve him in memory, break

fragments of his face to piece together
in quiet moments on this voyage of uncertainty
& possibility, this journey of numb knees

& misplaced dreams, huddled together
like cattle, exhausted pursuing a promise.

This poem is based on the testimonies of many different refugees.

Read More:
‘They don’t care’: refugees shocked by leaked Trump-Turnbull call [CNN]
Refugee Stories: Life-threatening sea journeys [UNHCR]

Stephen Byrne is an Irish chef and writer currently living in Chicago. He has been published worldwide in places such as Warscapes, Indian  Review, Tuck Magazine, RædLeafPoetry-India, The Original Van Gogh’s Ear Anthology and many others. His first collection ‘Somewhere but not Here’ won the RL Poetry Award, 2016 International category. He is the food writer for ‘This is Galway’ website.

Image by daveynin on Flickr.