Thursday, May 5, 2011

Refugee Poetry Reading

This Saturday night at 7:00 pm at Dominican Joe, my UT English class is hosting one of my favorite all time events, the Writing in the Margins Poetry Workshop. I (Jessica) am an Assistant Instructor at UT and I teach a class called Reading Women Writers to some great students. At the end of the semester, UT my students lead a poetry workshop in which they teach the elements of poetry to elementary through high school students, the kids from the Village Center. I love it when I can combine two things I love: my English students and the Village Center kids together in one room is a lot of fun. This culminating event gives the UT students the opportunity to teach how formal elements come together to create a poem, how literature can excite and energize younger students, and how their academic concepts can be used outside of the classroom. The Village Center kids get the chance to watch college students in action and see how easy and rewarding it can be to learn.

 As part of our course readings this semester, my students read selections from a book by Ann Jones called War is Not Over When it's Over. Jones spends time with refugee women all over the world, including the Congo, Sierra Leone, Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, and Burmese refugees in Thailand. The book was difficult for me personally because we work with people from most of the places she visited, but the section about Burmese refugees was especially poignant. The refugees in the pictures look just like our artisans and many of the came from the camp Jones chronicles. The issues they described are ones I've heard over and over again from our friends here in Austin. One of the most important reasons most of the refugees said they remained in camps instead of going back home to Burma was the education of their children. In the camp, there are schools, in Burma, there are not. The reason is devastatingly simple. This is also the reason almost all of our artisans left Thailand and came to the States. The idea of starting over in a new place is daunting and overwhelming, but the draw of educating their children makes it worth it for them. The discomfort they face is nothing compared to the opportunity to give their children a future.

The above picture of Say Htoo Paw, whose mother, Not Do Hen, is one of our weavers, captures my real reason behind this event: The poetry reading gives me the opportunity to help the refugees fulfill their dream of educating their kids. By giving their incredibly sharp children a taste for how fun it can be to learn, we're also blessing our artisans. And that makes it worthwhile on every level. As Michael Scott would say, win-win-win.

And the kids LOVE it. 

Here are a couple of my favorite poems from the Village Center kids from last year's poetry reading:


I like to learn new things because I know
Something I didn’t know before.
In Africa they would teach us a lot
Of math and my dad would have me
Practice when I got home.

My teacher pushed when I didn’t know
It, so that I would get to know it.
Getting the problems right makes me
Feel good.

Max the Tiger
My name is Max the Tiger,
And one day I was hungry.
I hid in the tall, green grass
To frighten my friends.

My friend pig, said, “Go away!”
            And pushed me soft. 
            I had to leave,
            So I went to Cici’s.
I had no money.
I tried to scare
            The people there.
But they didn’t run.

The manager said,
“If you have not money,
You get none,
So get a job instead!”

I went to school.
I learned a lot.
I learned science, running, reading, math.
I got a job cleaning, and earned enough
To go back for some pizza.
But I was five dollars short!
With a little more work, I got a little more money.
And now I live in Cici’s forever
With all the crunchy, cheesy pizza I want!

If you get the chance this weekend, come to Dominican Joe, get great coffee, and listen to some fantastic poems from some of Austin's rising young poetry stars.


  1. Max the Tiger might be my favorite piece of literature of all time. Love these kids and love this event!