Around 30 New Haven residents and Yale students gathered at the New Haven Free Public Library for Yale Students of Salaam’s first annual poetry festival on Saturday afternoon.
The event was organized by Students of Salaam, a Yale organization dedicated to the support, security and education of local refugees. At the poetry reading, three poets presented their work: Korean-American student Claire Sheen ’19, professional poet and Sudanese immigrant Safia Elhillo, and Syrian refugee and New Haven high school student Rasme Mousa. Poems focused on identity, language and culture, among other topics, touching on how they intersected to convey the diverse experiences of ethnic minorities in the United States.
Students of Salaam held the reading to provide an outlet for refugee children to build their confidence in English while sharing their creative works with poets from the Yale and professional community, said Community Events Director Elisabeth Siegel ’20.
“For the community, we wanted to bring in poets that could talk about experiences of being a refugee or immigrant in the U.S. and how identities change one’s existence,” Siegel said.
After feeling frustrated by the pressure to satisfy the demands of white-dominated art spaces, Sheen said she searched for less restricting spaces like the Asian-American spoken-word group Jook Songs. At Students of Salaam’s poetry festival, Sheen incorporated elements of friendship, love and her Korean-American identity in her work.
In Sheen’s poem “Valentine’s Day 2017,” she explored the struggle of loving oneself as a person of color despite existing “white beauty” standards across different cultures.
“Sometimes I fall into this trap of thinking that white people in America are rejecting me or not the kind of people I vibe with so I need to get back to my Korean roots, but then in Korea and Korean cultures there is a preoccupation with looking whiter so it’s kind of inescapable,” Sheen said. “[The poem] was about me being frustrated and running from one place to another and not feeling comfortable, and then finally saying I will love myself and other women of color and that will be enough.”
The second performer, Mousa, presented his love poem in Arabic, as he said translating his work into English would have failed to capture the feeling and meaning of each word.
Likewise, as Elhillo read from her book “The January Children,” she discussed the limitations of translation, particularly how writing in Arabic and English simultaneously is the best alternative to translating from one language to another. On top of language, Elhillo’s poetry explored racism, her Sudanese identity and the significance of country borders.
“Sudan is ultimately a construction. It is the result of someone literally drawing a line on a map and making it a new country, so because this idea that borders are man-made and fallible, I’m trying to find other ways to identify myself,” said Elhillo, adding that since she is so wrapped up in politics and corruption, if she reduces a country to a drawn line, the country’s political climate will not be so central to how she builds her life.
The event received positive reviews from several attendees, many of whom expressed enthusiasm about seeing poets of underrepresented backgrounds.
Analys Rivera, a freshman at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, said even if a poet isn’t from your culture, as a person of color it is empowering to hear different perspectives and compare other cultures to your own heritage and feelings.
“For once I could see poets who were related to me in terms of speaking Arabic and being part of two cultures and how they contrast,” said New Haven resident Mariam Kahn.
Kahn added that today, people need to be proud of their race — but poetry and artwork can empower underrepresented individuals, she argued.
Elhillo expressed her gratitude for Students of Salaam’s work, especially, she said, in a time period when the current U.S. administration has made an effort to deny refugees entry to the country.
“To fictionalize that history and say America has always been white and Christian and American and that we don’t want these refugees is sort of ignoring how people have been getting here since the beginning of time,” Elhillo said.
According to Students of Salaam, over 65 million people are currently displaced worldwide, and over 20 percent of those individuals are from Syria.