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The Poetry Sanctuary

The Poetry Sanctuary || Refuge Through Writing

In the world of creative expression, there exists a reflective sanctuary where words become both a refuge and a powerful instrument of change. The Poetry Sanctuary, a project with a profound sense of social responsibility, has quietly thrived over the course of the past five years. It’s a literary haven, that was primarily begun in the United Kingdom but with far-reaching global impact, it stands as a testament to the enduring power of the written word to heal, empower, and inspire.

At its helm is the visionary Dr. Yasmine Shamma, a distinguished Literature professor with over two decades of experience in shaping the minds of aspiring poets and writers. Her journey into the heart of this sanctuary has been guided by a passion for both the art of poetry and the plight of refugees—a combination that has yielded remarkable results. Dr. Shamma’s background in teaching college poetry and her profound engagement with refugee writing programs have fostered a unique fusion of creativity and empathy, resulting in a sanctuary that transcends borders and language barriers. 

The Poetry Sanctuary is where literature, compassion, and the human spirit converge in an inspiring symphony of words. CIIN was able to talk to Dr. Shamma and learn more about her work.

With an emphasis on social outreach. What inspired you to create a sanctuary focused on making poetry accessible to underserved communities?

I have been working with refugees and migrants over the past eight years, on research sponsored by the British Academy, Durham University, and the Leverhulme Trust. My work has been dedicated to asking the displaced what “home” means to them. I’ve been synthesizing this research into various publications, and in them, my writing works to humanize the (often life-long) refugee plight as one central of home-making. My work has aimed to draw on testimonies from various displaced communities from the region to address the perpetuity of displacement. Just as “Invasion is a structure, not an event,” so too displacement’s effects are long-lasting. 

It is with this in mind that The Poetry Sanctuary pursues holistic appreciations of displacement, cultivating answerable, sustained considerations of its structural ramifications. I wonder, in encouraging poems from those who for various reasons lack access to platforms of audience and communication—what it means to make sense of one’s place or place-lessness in the world? I also wonder about larger communities of displacement—when we think of migration we think, often, of the recently displaced. But what about so many of us—the decedents of refugees, official, and unofficial, who tell their stories and the stories of their lost villages, over tea on long and warm afternoons? What do we make of their stories, and how have our own been shaped by them? It felt to me that the poem serves as the processing place for all if only

it was made welcoming enough. The Poetry Sanctuary aims to offer refuge in writing—a sense of a place in poetry for all. 

There will be courses, pop-ups, and writing workshops for those who pursue them for leisure, alongside outreach work offered for free to make such pursuits of creativity accessible for the historically underserved. 

How do you see poetry as a means of healing and processing trauma for refugees?

On a practical level, poetry offers a pausing place, and a platform: the stories we’ve all been told find space on the page of the poem—and a space I hope to make accessible and unintimidating—to be sounded; to be heard. 

But also, I think of poetry as an ordering art. That there is, as Seamus Heaney, put it to “poetry’s credit” that it has the “the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness despite the evidence of wrongness all around it.” On the aesthetic level “persuasion” happens both in the way poetry processes, but also in the way it provides a form for processing—and indeed, my first book was on poetic form in this regard: as a measure of things—as a construction which situates one thing against another and in so doing sets up formulas that make things feel “right” or reminds of how they are “wrong.” Poetry may ultimately order the complicated and complex ramifications of displacement, through its built-in potential to weigh and rally rightness into rhythm. 

How does your background in education and refugee studies contribute to the workshops’ impact?

Like so many women, I am many things: a daughter first, a sister next, a, there have been children in the picture. I’ve been balancing my own work/life balance as a mother to three young ones while asking mothers of young ones serious and complicated questions about the complex meaning of home. The children have been sitting, quietly, throughout this, listening—no doubt with their own stories. I’ve wanted to engage them and honor their perspectives, without further upsetting them in their experiences of displacement. And so began the Poetry Sanctuary. 

Could you elaborate on the connection between poetry and the experiences of refugees and migrants?

Many migrants and refugees I’ve spoken to referenced poems and songs themselves in our discussions about “home.” I had been asking them about the idea of home, in a language, that has so many words for homelessness and diaspora, but so few for the “homeliness” of home (Arabic). So, in turn, I found myself grasping for descriptions of homes, and they would supplement these descriptions with their own. Our conversations quickly turned from the material to the abstract. Oral histories and testimonies would mingle with lyrics from Fairuz and Um Kalthoum and moving more concretely into the realm of poetry felt like a natural progression.

I must also confess that I am a literature professor, who works on poetry and migration as two very distinct sub-specialties of research. Engaging migrants in poetry has been a natural synthesis for me, and I hope also a productive and restorative one for them. 

What motivated your decision to relocate the poetry sanctuary from the UK to Jordan? Can you elaborate on how Jordan’s unique context influenced your mission?

I am so grateful to bring this project “home” in a sense—to Jordan—which may not be my paternal homeland, but is my maternal inherited one, and which holds within it so many poetic lives lived in syncopated displacement. 

As we all know, Jordan is home to a huge population of displaced people. It was both a natural fit and a personal one—I have long admired Jordan’s ability to welcome people from the region and create a sense of haven for our engagement with the vibrancy of life here. 

How does the Poetry Sanctuary provide a safe platform for refugees to express displacement experiences?

Considering the startling truth that waiting is now the primary condition of nearly 100 million people (a number that has more than doubled in the last 10 years), this project seeks a radical re-evaluation of displacement, treating it as a destination rather than a journey. The “end user” of this program is both the global migrant who is asked to engage in cultural integration in their new host country, but often through strictly empirical terms (employment, language acquisition, contributions to society, etc.), and the local community that often offers the infrastructure of “sanctuary” but with an obvious need for the beating heart necessary to sustain it: audience, understanding, communication, and appreciation of diversity. Because of the sheer (daily multiplying) number of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, both children and adults, throughout the world, this project has the potential to be internationally far-reaching and ground-breaking in offering an arts-based approach to understanding and apprehending the well-being of the dislocated migrant and ultimately aiding in their cultural integration in new, more hospitable, home spaces. 

The “safety” of its space is in its self-guided forms: writing as a personal refuge, publication as a public platform, for those who seek or express a desire to amplify their voices, is an ultimate product or output of the sanctuary. But more than anything, I aim to provide the sense that poetry is a place for processing the ineffable and a tool for our safe processing. 

What is the significance of the project’s “anyone any language welcome” approach?

Multilingualism. I believe in it. Many migration and resettlement schemes really push migrants to acquire and utilize the language of their new home spaces. But newer work in the field is advocating for the celebration of many voices and many languages. Accordingly, I do not want anyone to feel that they must confirm or adopt the language of English, for example, when their mother tongue might be the ever-rich, old, and beautiful language of Arabic. At the Poetry Sanctuary, I hope that everyone may focus on expression, over adherence to any language’s grammatical or syntactical rules. 

What challenges and opportunities do you foresee when moving the workshops to refugee camps?

Audience is an issue. I have already conducted these workshops in camps, and resettlement spaces, through the umbrella of my academic research. Usually, sign-up numbers are low but grow organically and exponentially when the workshops are taking place. I remember one such workshop recently, where I started on a table with a father and son, and by the time the workshop was over I left a table of over 30 adults and children writing and meaning to continue to write until we met the following week. So, I have learned to stay the course!

 The other issue is the vulnerability of the writing subject. I think focusing on publication amplifies this issue, and it’s with this in mind that I do not focus on their writing to be published, but rather on their writing to express, process, and share their experiences—whether with themselves or others as they see fit. 

The Poetry Sanctuary is all about giving voice to marginalized experiences. Could you share some success stories or powerful moments where poetry has played a role in promoting healing and providing a platform for those who have felt like ‘others’ in society?

This project has meant so much to me, as both a professor and a mother. In the latter regard, I found myself accidentally co-creating (alongside Reading’s Rank and File drama production) a cohort of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK who didn’t know they were part of a sense of “many.” Asylum seekers from Africa mingled with resettled refugees from Syria, migrants from Palestine, and those from Afghanistan, to grow to feel at “home” in their otherness. 

As a mother, it was so enjoyable to practice prompts and workshops with my own children. My son was 4 years old when I began this work, and a result of our little practice workshops was that he was offered a book deal and publication of his beautiful poetry. This publication made him the UK’s “youngest published poet” and encouraged a feeling in our family that feelings—and the ordering of them in art—matter.