Yasmin Aden: I Am the Poem

In her story, Yasmin recalls stories of her childhood as a refugee and reflects on the importance of poetry, family, and home in developing one’s identity.  

I am the poem my mother wrote to the future. Folded between time and space, I am a collection of words that house the dreams of my community. Hands shaky with anticipation, racing across the page to catch every word: each stanza to this poem is a thread dancing around memories, connecting me to my identity.

The words to this poem have been in my mind since the day I left Dagahaley refugee camp, my first home. My mother always told me that poetry has a way of building up inside of us, creating a reservoir of memory that we carry with us everywhere we go. The dust. The scorching sun. The crooked acacia trees. All of these things live inside me. I take Dagahaley with me wherever I go because I can never untie myself from the fabric of my identity.

From the beginning, I knew that my world was constructed from the rubble remains of the Somali civil war.  Dagahaley: a speck on the map in northeastern Kenya, it translates to “rocky town.” It is the place where my mother came to seek asylum from the trauma of her past, in the process she learned to embrace the possibilities of the future.

I am a testimony to this oath: the spirit of hope and the power of a mother’s love to journey across battlefield and desert to ensure the best opportunities for her child.  I might have been born landless, but I was not born hopeless. My community taught me that although I might be labeled by words I couldn’t yet understand–“refugee, asylum seeker, unwelcomed”– I was not alone.

I am from the place where the elders would gather the youth under the shade of the dry acacia trees and chant lyrical ballads called Gabay that describing our culture and history. It was through moments like these that I learned about the ability of words to carry the weight of the past, to tie the world together and create community through shared experience.

My mother believes that home is an act of moving forward. She would say, “Biyo fadhiya biyo socdaa kiciya.”Dead-water is moved by running water. As a child of refugees, I knew that home could never be a place on the map, so I found shelter in poems that carried me across a diasporic sea, in the words that pieced together my separate worlds, turned the chaos and confusion into something coherent.

The stories my elders told me also carried the heavy weight of loss, for we were acquainted with struggle. My elders taught me to understand the complexities of identity before I could read; from a young age, I was instilled with the skill needed to weave home out of language, eventually allowing me to create a sense of belonging when I moved to the United States. For most of my childhood in America, my family was forced to move around in search of resources and a stable home. I felt like I was drowning in rushing water as my family pushed upstream, any attempt to connect to my new home ended in failure.

Poetry helped to document the emotions I felt at this turbulent time, it prepared me to speak from the heart and never to be ashamed of where I come from. A small theatre room after school is where I found a new sense of community. The black walls and old stage became home to the Spoken Word Club, a place where a collection of about twenty students gathered in that room every Thursday, carrying poems too heavy for their bodies. Coming to Spoken word club tied me directly to Minneapolis; my peers and I would learn to break down our experiences, map out all the misplaced parts of our identities and find words to describe our world. We wrote poems not to escape our lives, but to ensure our lives did not elude us.

I know now more than ever that two hardcovers do not bind poetry; it is moving past present fears and creating space on stage, the page, and the classroom to be rooted in my identity. Aqoon La`aani waa iftiin la’aan; the absence of knowledge is the absence of light. I am the summation, a reflection that serves as an emblem of my mother’s’ journey when she started my poem. Written in a different language and forged on different lands, it was once my mother’s, but I have inherited the pen and am now the author.

I continue this tradition, hands made steady by confidence as I address this poem to the future. I take with me the light of my elders’ wisdom; their strength pushes me forward as it once did at the start of my mother’s journey.