Refugees In Dallas, Finding a Voice Through Poetry

Poetry is our underappreciated art form. Jorge Luis Borges once said, “Truly fine poetry must be read aloud. A good poem does not allow itself to be read in a low voice or silently. If we can read it silently, it is not a valid poem: a poem demands pronunciation. Poetry always remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art. It remembers that it was first song.”

I once had the opportunity to read my favorite poem at an event in Houston hosted by Robert Pinsky, America’s Poet Laureate. My poem was John Keats’ O Solitude. “O Solitude if I must with thee dwell let it not be among the jumbled heap of murky buildings…” Mr. Pinsky reiterated the need to read poetry aloud in order to recognize the authentic voice of the poet.  My wife Jill, a second grade teacher loves having her children memorize and recite poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson and Langston Hughes. Her young students, many of whom are living in poverty, love the exposure to this delightful literary form.

Literacy Instruction for Texas has been sponsoring a series of events on Literacy called Literacy Speaks. This past Wednesday’s evening featured Refugee Writers, which was founded in 2010 by Justin Banta. It is a small non- profit doing big things with an often ignored group. According to their website, “Refugee Writers is a volunteer organization of writers, artists, and professionals; people living in Dallas with diverse identities, interests, and skills.” The goal is quite simple, yet profound, to help refugees find their own voice and tell their stories in that voice. I met Banta in October 2010 at Pecha Kucha, one of Dallas’ most creative endeavors, where I was fortunate to speak about my work with asylees. At that time I was a volunteer pro bono lawyer for Human Rights Initiative of North Texas Inc., where I am now Executive Director.

After the talks, a young man came up and introduced himself as Justin Banta. He explained that he wanted to start working with refugees to help them tell their own stories.  Last night was an indicator of just how powerful this project is. The evening presented what Banta said would be a ‘larger vision of what Dallas is and what it can be.’ Banta was introduced by Sarah Papert of the Vickery Meadows Learning Center, an organization dedicated to improving English literacy levels among non-English speaking adults and their young children.

Lots of area non-profits were in attendance. I met several great people from the North Texas Food Bank for instance. I also met Kate Park, Executive Director of Friends of Dallas Public Library, there to talk about The Big Read, a project near to D Magazine. Also speaking was Bentley Brown, screenwriter of the short film Faisal Goes West, which just premiered in  Milan at the Souq Film Festival.

The evening’s poets were:

Yirgalem Ketema arrived in Dallas in 2009 from Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. She attended Asmara University, the nation’s top academic institution, and speaks four languages: Tigrina, Amharic, Arabic, and English. She will begin nursing classes at Brookhaven in this coming January.

Najma Ismail was born in Sudan’s southern Nuba Mountains region and attended Saint Peter and Paul School in Khartoum. She resided in Egypt for seven months prior to moving to Dallas in 2009. She is follows religion in the media and hopes to further her studies in accounting and nursing.

Sahra Ali was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and grew up in the country’s southern city of Basra. She graduated from the Teachers Institute of Basra and proceeded to teach elementary school for years before leaving Iraq for Amman, Jordan. She arrived in Dallas in 2010 and has served as a volunteer assistant with Iraqi families resettling in the Dallas area.

Lilia Galicia was born in Puebla, Mexico, where she began studying English in middle school in order to better understand Madonna songs. She came to Los Angeles in 1990, settling in the Dallas area one year later. A lover of fiction and the outdoors, she is working towards a career in nursing.

Sangeet Chavan moved to Dallas just four months ago from Puné, India with her husband and young son.  We are humbled that in the midst of this new and challenging transition for her, she took the time to write and present tonight. She enjoys reading poetry in her native language, Hindi, and looks forward to continuing to write in both Hindi and English. (Ms Chavan was not in attendance last evening however.

Each woman read a poem in their native language and then its English translation.

Why poetry? Banta answers that question this way:

Poetry seems like the perfect medium to achieve this broader framework–it’s typically considered the most rarefied form of literature, the most austere or sophisticated.  So to have these women read their own poems in two languages immediately implies a level of sophistication, intelligence, and capability. And we’re hoping that the audience experiences it that way.  We don’t want to have to say plainly: “(T)hese women have voices that deserve our attention and consideration. They have important perspectives about our city and community.”  We want that to be a built-in assumption and an obvious conclusion.  In other words–we don’t want to say: “this should be normative,” we just want to present it as normative.

The event succeeded wonderfully. In introducing the evening, Banta said that he began by asking a question, ‘(W)hat would happened if we gave the stage to women in GED and ESL classes to read their original poems?’ He added these were people ‘having a voice worth listening to.’ Each of the poets read their piece in their native language first and then read the poem in English. The process was instructive. Each of the poets was confident, animated, and passionate as they recited the poem in their native Tigrinya, Arabic, and Spanish. It added emotional context to the meaning of the words.

After reading the pieces each of the speakers answered questions. One of the questions is what they hoped for. Each speaker gave a variation on the theme of completing education and giving back. It’s a lovely illustration of the value that immigrants bring to our country. On behalf of the agency I lead, HRI, I’ve accompanied immigrants to their interview at the Houston Asylum Office. Hanging there is a sign which reads:

“For over two centuries, this nation has been a beacon of hope and opportunity, a place that has drawn enterprising men and women from around the world who have sought to build a life as good as their talents and their hard work would allow. And generation after generation of immigrants have come to these shores because they believe that in America all things are possible.” President Barack Obama.

Listen to these poems from these women and decide if you think this is true.

English Translations of the poems:

Place: English Language School

Time: 10:30am

Event: Talking

By Yirgalem Ketema

My school was my mother

She would come to me

And give a hug to me

The school was also like my mother–

Holding me like a mother.



When I did not understand

English I clung to my translator–

My tongue was closed

Life was hard


On a Tuesday my teacher,

Ms. Silvia, wearing silver

jewelry, full of precious stones,

smiling and with sweet speech asked,


“How, when, and why did you come to Dallas”


“Tell me about your missionary work”

But when I started to speak she stopped me

And said: “You are speaking English”


I am like a mother now.

I welcome others with a hug.

My tongue is open.


Place: Apartment Complex in Vickery Meadows

Time: 5:30pm

Event: Talking with my neighbor

By Najma Ismail

In the Nuba Mountains,

If your family is far

Your neighbors take care of you


In Dallas we never knew each other in deed

As a neighbor

I ask, “Who is this?”

If I know who is this, then I open the door.


I heard a knock and I opened the door.

My neighbor told me, ” Close your door. Don’t let people

Look inside to see what you have.”


People from the Nuba Mountains who came here before me

Would tell me these things.

She’s the first one not from Sudan. She is from Cuba.

She talked to me like that.

She’s my neighbor. She’s close to me.




Place: White Rock Trail

Time: 4:00pm

Event: Walking

By Lilia Hernandez

Crunch… Crunch…

What was that noise?

Silence was disturbed


There it was

The bobcat

Small, fragile

like a lost dog

We both react the same way

Frozen, Paralyzed


Witnessing a wild creature

Left me jolted, surprised

In such a civilized city

In a hectic cosmopolitan


Place: Fiesta Supermarket, north Dallas

Time: 11:00am

Event: Shopping

By Sahra Ali

My first week, just in from Iraq

Having shopped for 20 years in Basrah,

I rode to the Fiesta Supermarket with my friend

Wanting Bread

In Arabic we call it samuun


She said, “Go quickly, I will stay here in the car.”

But back outside

now with the bread

No car–no friend

No car–no friend

A police officer

No car–no friend

“Your car was stolen?”

Now a crowd

“Your car was stolen?”


My first week, just in from Iraq,

Having shopped for 20 years in Basrah,

One family out of a crowd of strangers

Said: “We can help you.

We can take you back home.”



Place: Roads

Time: All Day

Event: Driving, Walking, Traveling

by Sangeeta Chavan

The roads here are silent.

There is no sound when I drive.

I arrive at the zoo, or downtown or in

Richardson–I have seen every place in Dallas.

Everywhere I go I went.

And everywhere I go I went with

My husband and son.


When I travel in Dallas I see stops signs everywhere.

Cars stop when people step into the crosswalk.

When I cross with my son the cars stop for us.

School busses carry flashing lights and stop signs.

And so when I drive I also stop.


But in Pune, where I once lived,

I drove in streets full of noise.

And I rode a motorcycle

And I did not stop.

There were no stop signs

And no crosswalks.

We just ran.


Other sponsors of the event included:


SMU”s Center on Communities and Education, and Commit! 

Pictured at top:  Jorge Luis Borges