Friday, February 3, 2017

Voices of Refugees: A Free Verse Poetry Peek

this girl you see
by Amy LV

Students - Sometimes I write about the news and pictures I see in the news.  I am often aware of the fact that while I happened to be born free and safe, this is not the case for many people, including many children. When I think about this truth, I want to do good.  I want to be kind. I want to help.

Today I am honored to welcome eighth grade teacher Holly VanEpps and her student writers from A.D. Oliver Middle School in Brockport, NY.  Greetings to these young poets doing good, thoughtful work.  Thank you, Holly, for joining us.

Voices of Refugees: Free Verse Poetry

Our inspiration: This poetry project came about during our study of Thanhha Lai’s novel INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN. 

The novel is written in free verse poetry form and is told from the perspective of a young Vietnamese refugee. As readers, we feel her heartbreak as she has to flee her home and leave everything behind. We can see her life being turned inside out when she escapes, and can feel her hope as she settles into her new home in America.

Expeditionary Learning has a unit on this book in their module from Engage NY. We use a lot of this unit, which culminates in a research-based free verse poetry assignment. Students are to research a country with a refugee crisis, and write a poem from the perspective of a refugee. Over the years, I have modified this assignment to incorporate more recent refugee crises—Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Some students got permission to choose from outside of this list—for example, one student from the Ukraine wanted to write as a refugee from his family’s home country. 

The Process: I recently changed the method of research—moving from hard-copy research folders to online research guides for each country. Students watched videos and read news reports, articles and websites to gather their information. They spent several days researching their country of choice, taking notes on the country, its conflict, and the culture, history, and traditions of its people. Their goal was to create a ‘culturally appropriate’ narrator and to include historical and cultural details in their writing in order to make their poem authentic. We studied closely the poems from Lai’s book to see how she was able to skillfully weave in researched details with ease.

Guidelines: Poems were to be written in free verse form, from the perspective of a culturally appropriate narrator. They had to include at least three historical or cultural details, and had to also include several instances of figurative language. The poem had to be set in the context of a specific scene, and needed to show how the refugee’s life had been turned ‘inside out.’

The end result of this assignment was something truly beautiful. Students—even ones who do not love ELA or writing—created really powerful poems that captured what it might mean to be a refugee— the struggle, the fear, the heartbreak, and sometimes the triumph that goes along with this life-changing experience. And they did it all with their words. 

Darth Vader No More

I am like the
Darth Vader of everything,
for I always come at the wrong times,
for I always cause destruction.

Since living in Iran, I feel
a little
less like the fatal villain.
I am starting to help my old mother out
by sewing brown
 w        r
       o       m
 looking fabric into big squares of fabric.

Mother says it will help earn Iranian Rials,
which will help me pay for tuition.

Since moving into my two story, green apartment
I am the magnet for my age, drawing many peers near.
I have made many new friends,
all having the same
background as me.

One girl I met, with
shiny, black hair
happens to be from Herat!

I found a small, Afghan diner
which serves my favorite food,
which I can buy for just 2 IRR’s!
The sweet aroma it gives off
I can smell from my home,
t h r e e    b l o c k s   a w a y.

Adjusting to my new home, I don’t feel
as if I am the only
in a tunnel of
as I had felt in the torturous refugee camp.

by Allie

Teacher Note: I really like how this student used a simile that many students could connect with—comparing their destructive ways with Darth Vader. I also like how she played around with concrete poetry form, making some of her words visually represent that word. 

What If?

As we wait in the field like crippled field mice
for the Serbs—the hawks—to kill us,
a funny thought occurs to me.

What if when Edvin—my best friend—
fled with his family, my family had followed?

What if eight days ago when the Serbs came to our home in Foca
to deliver a first—and final—warning
to leave or be murdered,
Father had agreed?

What if Father had not instead
grabbed the gun of the first,
shot the second,
and gotten shot by the third,
all while yelling for us to run?

What if I had grabbed Mother, as well as Mirsada,
as I heeded his advice?

What if I had not run at all?

Perhaps carpets would still hang
on the walls
and lie on the floor
like familiar
and beautiful
reminding us that
everything was how it should be.

I would be sipping
my morning kava
instead of letting the
fall on my tongue.

As the Serbs turn toward the west,
I turn toward the east.

Toward Croatia,
toward hope.

As the Serbs
mislead themselves
now over a mile away
I take Mirsada’s hand
and we walk
into the sunrise.

by Alex

Teacher Note: I love the simile in stanza one of this poem, and the repetition of “What if?” throughout. The detail about the carpets on the walls and sipping a morning kava are really beautiful.

They Day They Came

They came
as a pride of lions,
so quiet
and unsuspecting,
always prowling
in the near distance.

The inevitable threat,
waiting to strike.

Much stronger
than us,
much faster
than us,
much more feared
than us.

They came just three weeks after Muharram,
the new year.
And a month
and two and one-half weeks before Mawlid,
Mohammad’s birthday celebration.

They were angry,
shouting things like
allahu akbar,
Mohammad is greater.

This we know,
for we are Islamic,
but we do not fight.

have come
for war.

by Jacob

Teacher Note: This is just the beginning of this student’s poem—it is a much longer poem that tells a great story. I included this excerpt because of the great metaphor in the first stanza.

The Ride of a Refugee

My name is Darya, meaning sea, because mama refers to me as a wave,
going away, then being strong and coming back again.

I’m an average 13-year-old girl,
riding on the endless ride
of being a refugee.

My life is like a rollercoaster,
except it’s not the woo-hoo! kind of roller coaster,
it’s more like the type of roller coaster when all the suspense
builds up at the top, and at that very moment
you know you made the wrong decision.

No one told me to hold on like they do at
the cheesy carnivals before they start the ride.
No, not at all.

So when I was forced to flee
my house in Maiden Shar,
a small little town located in Afghanistan
with a population of 2400,
I was kind of shaken around.

Like any other rollercoaster, my life is full of thrill.
Twists and turns here and there,
but my life is constantly

This horrible ride just keeps on going.
Mama woke me up at the crack of dawn.
She told me to do one thing, and only one thing.
I don’t know what I was packing for
Or why I even needed to pack,
but I did what mother told me.

My stuffed dog that I have had ever since I was little,
a pair of clean clothing,
my one and only blanket,
and my other pair of shoes is all that I bring,
leaving all the other memories behind.

As soon as we are both out she locks the door, not knowing this now,
but that was her last time ever locking the door.

Run she says.
Mama tells me to run and get on the ship

I opened my eyes and ran.
Ran all the way until the people on the streets were just a blur.
And that’s when I knew the ride had just begun.

by Morgan

Teacher Note: This is also a shortened version of this student’s original poem. I loved that she carried the metaphor of the amusement park throughout the entire poem.


New desk, mahogany.
There’s chewing gum stuck under the table of it,
            as am I.

Faint, but close.

BOOMING ShrapnelShrapnel


Footsteps. Wait, bullets.

Flying past the building,
family of 13, gone.

Lost, burqa turned burnt cloth.

Stuffed animal,
burnt to a crisp.

The whole camp,

Bullets. Wait, footsteps,

Coming up the stairs, fast.

Malik! The girl I had met earlier,
Northern Iraqis behind,
Mila, Gone.
Me, out the window.

هذا الفتى! (That boy!)

They may have me.
Not just yet.
I’m a fast runner…

by Ethan

Teacher Note: I love how he played with sentence structure. I think the shorter sentences, and even the fragments, are pretty powerful. He is another student who worked with some concrete poetry form. The contrast of the line, "Footsteps. Wait, bullets" and the one later on that says "Bullets. Wait, Footsteps" is also a favorite part. I appreciate that he ended his poem with a cliffhanger. 

Thank you to Holly and to these thoughtful poets for joining us today.  In gratitude, I will send them a copy of a book that broke me open this week, Tony Johnston's VOICE FROM AFAR.  I will also send a copy to one commenter on this post, drawn at random next Thursday, February 9 and announced next Friday.

Penny is hosting today's Poetry Friday roundup over at her place where you can celebrate second grade teacher poet Heidi Mordhorst's wonderful young poets with their coral reef poetry and art along with links to all kinds of poetry goodness.

Please share a comment below if you wish.


  1. What powerful poems! Loved reading about the process--a great model to follow for teaching empathy.

  2. Thank you for sharing these poems, Amy - they are so haunting and true.

  3. These students get it--they show such compassion and understanding for children forced to become refugees. And they show they understand the power of words. I am blown away.

  4. It's so, so important to remember that refugees are first and foremost people, just normal people who want to live a normal life. My grandfather was a refugee and lost everything he had when he fled his homeland alone as a boy. Though he built a good life in a new country, the emotional scars of his experiences haunted him for the rest of his life. It's more than any child should have to bear.

  5. "so now/we call her refugee"-heartbreaking, Amy. The poems are tough to read. In my little house in my safe place, it's hard to imagine the truth of these. The children wrote beautifully. I've used Inside Out and Back Again too in the past, yet my students, of course, could only pretend, and yet, for that I'm thankful too. FYI, Ruth Hersey wrote today about using Inside Out and Back Again too. Thanks for all!

  6. Such a wonderful poetry project. And the results are beautiful. Thanks for sharing these.

  7. Amy, these young poets write with such honesty and truth. Thank you for sharing their words.

  8. Thank you Amy, and Holly, and most of all the insightful and talented students for sharing these poems here... I'm struck by how true "voice" rings in these poems; so many different voices, actually, but so engaging and powerful. Important creative work.

  9. What a great unit. I am struck by the power refugee stories bring to children.

  10. Great post! I wrote about Inside Out and Back Again too!

  11. What a meaningful way to teach such powerful lifelong lessons--from the students' research to their sharing of the written poems. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Powerful poetry. I like all the details the kids added to the emotion.

  13. I can't think of a better way to end a research unit than with taking on the voices of others in a poem. Empathy is learned this way. We need more empathy. Thanks for sharing this process. I loved Inside out and Back Again! Now I have more purpose to picking it up to share with my students.

  14. Impressive poems, Amy! Have you heard of the Writing for Peace Young Writers Contest?

  15. I hope Ruth-from-Haiti sees this. She also wrote about using this book!

  16. These poems are amazing...powerful and touching. Thanks so much for sharing their work, Amy.

  17. Oh, wow! There is so much to each one of these poems, makes it hard to believe they were written by children. MARIBETH BATCHo

  18. These poems are wonderful. Thank you for sharing. I am impressed with the level of insight and creative use of figurative language. Awesome job!