Poems for Syrian Families

Captain’s Log 26/02/20 11:09


I’m in a car in Kent, holding 3 poems. Sitting next to me is Dan, a caseworker from Migrant Help- a charity that offers support to refugees and asylum seekers. In the back is Eklas, an Arabic interpreter, who is now faced with the unenviable task of translating what’s in my hand.

We’re on our way to meet the Syrian families I visited a few weeks ago. When I first met them, I was really moved by how welcoming everyone was, and how openly they shared the incredible stories of their lives. The idea of putting all this into poetry felt like an important job. I hope it goes down OK.

Folkestone crop 3

The first house we’re visiting is Leila and Saad’s. Saad greets us at the door and we head into the living room. Leila comes in soon after, carrying a tray laden with Arabic coffee and a sweet called halawa.


We sit in a circle, on an assortment of chairs and sofas, and get down to business. Leila asked me for a poem about her escape from the war. It’s a massive subject. Before I show her what I’ve brought, I explain, via Eklas, that I’ve simplified what she told me a bit. I tell her if anything seems wrong, I can change it.

I read it out. Once I’m finished, Eklas translates. I don’t know what to do at this point, so I stare at the carpet and listen. It sounds much better in Arabic.

“Thank you,” Leila says. She tells me she understands about shortening it,
“If you did the whole story, it would be a film.” She tells me she used to write a lot of poetry herself- in school she was top of her class. But, since the war, there’s not really been much of a chance to carry on.

After a minute, she says something to Eklas and they start to giggle. Eklas takes her empty coffee cup and flips it over on to a saucer.
“I’m not even going to explain what’s happening,” she says, before flipping it back.

She passes the cup to Leila, who starts to look inside. After a minute, I realise she’s reading her fortune.
“It’s just for fun,” Eklas explains. “She says she sees a picture of a girl, of my daughter. She’s telling me she’ll have a good future.”

We need to go and visit the next family. I say goodbye to Leila and Saad.
“You are welcome here any time, Rowan,” Leila says. She leads us to the door and waves as we head down the path.


She tells me
when the bombing started
she was at her auntie’s.
She remembers
coffee cups clashing,
falling to the floor,
holding their breath
in silent prayer.

At home,
she took a photo of
her sons sat on the rubble;
she needed something palpable now
words were powerless
and decisions were left unspoken.

It’s 130 kilometres to Iraq.
In the midday sun,
with a child on your back,
it’s measured in painful steps.

At the end of the road,
there’s a tarpaulin shack where
the storms break in
and the sickness
presses against your head like
a desert boulder.

I ask what kept her going.
She tells me
the question is irrelevant,
when your days are swayed by
the unknown,
when the route home is long closed,
it’s no longer about stopping or starting:
Forward is the only option.



Ahmed answers the door and takes us into the living room. We sit down with his wife, Shirin, and their caseworker, Kumba, who’s also on a visit to go through some paperwork.

When I last met them, Ahmed and Shirin asked for a poem about their son Ali, who, in the first years of his life, had some pretty serious health complications. It’s another huge subject and I decide to cut right to the chase.

When I’m finished, I hand them both a copy. We start to talk about the news. Britain has had its first confirmed cases of COVID-19. Ahmed has heard some schools in Italy and Germany have had to close.

“I’m quite scared,” he says. “Maybe I will stop sending my children to school for a few months.” Considering everything him and Shirin have been through with Ali, it must be a particularly worrying time.

Kumba starts to go through the paperwork. It feels like a good point to leave. Me, Dan and Eklas make our goodbyes and head for the door.
“Thank you very much,” Ahmed says.


They say Ali was born twice.
Once in a war in Syria,
once in a hospital in Turkey.

A toddler,
7 months in quarantine,
his mother held him through
endless scans,
not even his father allowed in,
till the doctors finally told them
the worst had come.
It needed stem cells.
100,000 in medical bills.

To recent refugees,
it would have been easier
to paint the moon blue.
His mother cursed the day
they walked across that border,
asked what twisted god would
offer salvation,
only to rip it from their fingertips?
Wished for the sky to fold in,
for the sun to dim and extinguish
like the last solitary lamp
in a midnight street.

It was next Wednesday
when the donation came.
All of the money,
no address,
no name,
no explanation.



When I get to Hasan, Reem and Nour’s house, it’s a bit later. They couldn’t meet me till the evening, which is after Dan and Eklas finish work. However, Dan has very kindly offered to drive me here from the Migrant Help office. He’s come straight from a school run, and his kids are sat waiting patiently in the back of the car.

We knock on the door. Hasan answers and Dan explains that he needs to go home and cook some food, but I’m going to stay and deliver the poem. I say goodbye to Dan and then head into the sitting room, where Hasan is watching Pointless.

It’s just him on his own. I wonder where the rest of the family are? Maybe it’s not the best time. I decide to make this quick.

When I asked Hasan and his wife, Reem, what was important, we talked about their hopes for the future. His daughter, Nour, explained her plans to become an architect and I decided to write about this. I’m getting ready to read it when he stops me.
“Woah, woah, woah. You’re going to do it now? I need to call my family.”

He shouts upstairs and they all begin to filter in excitedly. First Nour, followed by Reem. But also, Nour’s younger siblings, who I never got to meet last time. There’s Mohammed, a very tall 18-year-old in a red t-shirt; Nada, who looks about 15, with long black hair; and Zeina, who must be around 4 and is dressed in blue dungarees.


As we’re all saying hello, I realise Mohammed, Nada and Zeina have absolutely no idea what this is about. I start to explain the whole story, about my journey around England, and my conversation with their family. They listen in disbelief.

I read the poem out.
“Do you ever perform your poetry for people, other than families?” Mohammed asks, as soon as I’ve finished.
“I think what my brother means is,” Nour adds, “would you like to come and read it at an event?”

She tells me about a celebration of Syrian culture that she’s planning. There will be food and music and dancing, it’ll be open to the whole community of Folkestone, and all of the money raised will go to charity, helping people worst affected by the war. I tell her it’s something I’d love to be involved in.

After making some plans, I start getting ready to go. Zeina describes seeing snow for the very first time this year.
“I got some from outside my brother’s window. I put some orange juice on and ate it, it was delicious. Do you live in a castle?” I tell her I live near a castle. “I love castles,” she says.

It’s been a real pleasure having a chance to catch up with these families. Their hospitality and enthusiasm for what I’m doing has made it really special. I give everyone a wave and head for the door, hoping it won’t be too long before we cross paths again.


She’s sat at the back of the architecture class,
a film without any subtitles.
This isn’t English,
or French, or Arabic;
it’s a torrent of technical terms
spraying from the lecturer’s lips;
an alien transmission
seemingly designed to be
as confusing as humanly possible.

She pulls out a pen,
takes a deep breath,
reminds herself this is just another step.

In Syria,
she studied by candlelight,
the shadows danced across the plastered walls,
bounced on to pages,
made facts hard to explain.

Later, when the bombing started,
she learned too much,
and day after day:
How a street can decay,
how a home can hollow out,
the way foundations rest on something
less predictable than the ground.

She flew to the UK with a faith that
over rubble
there is always space to rebuild.
On her student card is the name Nour,
she’ll tell you it’s impossible to forget
because it means light
and without light there can be nothing.

When she applied,
they asked her why she wanted to study architecture.
She told them she had been studying it,
for as long as she could remember.

Rowan McCabe

With special thanks to Dan, Jitka and all of the staff at Migrant Help.


3 thoughts on “Poems for Syrian Families

  1. Robert Wilson

    “she’ll tell you it’s impossible to forget
    because it means light
    and without light there can be nothing.”

    That, my friend is a line full of power, and brought a tear to my eye. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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