Hope by Zena Kazeme

“Once in a poetry workshop we were asked to meditate on the word hope and write down the senses it evoked — the sights, smells, sounds. As I meditated, a very specific sound came to mind. It took me back to my time working at the refugee camps in Greece.” Zena Kazeme writes.

Hope by Zena Kazeme

Hope by Zena Kazeme

Once in a poetry workshop we were asked to meditate on the word hope and write down the senses it evoked — the sights, smells, sounds. As I meditated, a very specific sound came to mind. It took me back to my time working at the refugee camps in Greece.

I was walking through the camp late one night, exhausted and lost, using my phone flashlight to navigate. It had been a particularly difficult day; heavy rain had soaked the tents, turned the field muddy and many families faced the harsh reality of sleeping on a wet floor that night.

It was the kind of situation that bred despair and desperation. I drudged along in the mud praying my phone battery would hold up until I reached the checkpoint out of the camp. Then suddenly, in the distance, I heard the faint sound of clapping and singing. I looked up to find the only light other than my phone; a small campfire burning between two tents, and the silhouette of a couple seated next to each other on plastic chairs with a small crowd of women surrounding them, ululating like a chorus of birds above their heads and beating on makeshift drums.

As I got closer, it became clear that these were wedding drums. The young couple, I later discovered, had met and fallen in love in the camp. Tired of waiting for the borders to open, they had decided to tie the knot. They would come by to see me and my colleague from time to time and quiz us about life in Europe.

One time, they asked us about our ethnicity, and they smiled when my colleague told them she was Arab but from the UK. They looked at each other enthusiastically and said, ‘our children are going to say that one day’. I remember thinking sceptically at the time, how naïve they were. I wanted to ask them where did you find love in a place like this? 

When I returned home, I shared the story with my parents, and they laughed at my scepticism. That is how I came to know that my parents were also met with cynicism when they were married under similar circumstances over 30 years ago. After being separated from each other during a mass exile in the 80s that forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis into refugee camps on the Iran-Iraq border, my parents almost gave up trying to find each other.

Eventually after exile and separation, in the middle of war, they reunited. Their wedding was held in a friend’s small back garden on a rare night when the war sirens were silenced, and curfews were lifted. There were no venues or caterers and even the Imam that married them was reluctant to attend and so anxious to leave that he rushed through the vows. My mother later donated her simple wedding dress to the refugee camp she had lived in and over the years it was worn by countless refugee brides.

I used to think that hope can only manifest itself through divine signs, like a poppy growing in a battlefield, or a seed dreaming of spring beneath the snow or the sun rising after every dark night, but I realise that sometimes, it needs to be deliberately cultivated.

Hope is an act of resistance, the weapon of the oppressed. For a refugee, there is nothing more valuable and sacred than hope. It is your bread when you have nothing to live on, it pulls you up as you climb over concrete walls to freedom, it holds your hand and whispers prayers in your ear as you cross tumultuous oceans, as you fly across turbulent skies. It beats loudly in your chest as you burn your hands on hot metal rods under the belly of a truck.

Our mothers smuggle hope in their wombs across borders and checkpoints. Hope is both an intimate companion and an infliction we cannot part with, it keeps us restless, but it also keeps us alive. It is the only anti-dote to fear, it is the ultimate lifeline. It sits patiently and waits for us to be released from the last stage in the cycle of grief and then gives us a new lease of life. It shows us a future in which we are alive.

When I think of hope now, I hear the sound of wedding drums in a refugee camp.

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With thanks to Zena Kazeme for allowing us to share her thoughts.


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