Armistice Day, 11 November. The National Library auditorium. Part of Wellington’s literary festival Litcrawl. A line-up of excellent and experienced speakers speaking about World War 1. And in the middle of them, two high school students, Yazan and Mohammad El Fares, reading their poems. They’ve been in New Zealand for two years, and here they are reading their own work – about Syria, and Lebanon, before their family came to New Zealand as refugees. About their experiences here. About their hopes. They remind us that war is both history and a constantly present thing.
One evening when I was at the El Fares home, their father showed me a video he had just been sent of his home village being bombed. Here they were, sitting in a house in Titahi Bay, watching their village being bombed. I can’t imagine it.
It reminded me of a time when I was teaching an English language class, for adults who wanted to be able to talk about current affairs in New Zealand. Each week we would watch a news item on TV, then talk about it, looking for the words we needed to ask questions and express our opinions. One night we watched an Anzac Day parade. In the middle of the discussion that followed, I realized that I was the only person in that room who hadn’t lived through a war.
The next year, we took our kids to the ANZAC Day dawn service at the Cenotaph in Wellington. Standing in the middle of that large crowd who were totally silent, I realized how lucky we were that we could gather in that place with no fear of violence or attack.
It’s good to be reminded how lucky we are, so that we never take it for granted.
At the end of their presentation, Mohammad El fares read a poem by his sister Razan:
I can’t do anything
But if I can do something
I want all the people in Syria
to have a new life.
Syria will become a safe place.
People will meet and smile again,
and trust each other.
All the children will go to school
and achieve their goals.
People will not be scared of each other.
They will help and look after each other.
They will buy everything cheap like the past.
They will go to the mosque to pray
and in Ramadan they will make the breakfast
and invite friends and talk and eat
and have a fine time.
As in the past.
To finish, Yazan read a small statement. It’s like his manifesto. I’ll leave the last word to him:
I would like New Zealanders to understand that we are all the same but with different cultures, colours and beliefs, and differences shouldn’t be an issue.
I also would like New Zealanders to be aware that we came here because of the war in our country and we came here to be safe and to study. We lived through a war and now we want to live in peace.
So we ask for your support and respect.