Monday, 5 September 2016

c/o Filippiada Camp for Refugees

c/o Filippiada,

Camp for Refugees




a collection of poems by

Lea Knowles



A month spent working in Filippiada camp cannot fail to leave a lasting impression on a volunteer. The ‘refugee crisis’ and its attendant injustices, obscenities and frustrations can raise the blood pressure for sure, but ultimately you are left with respect for the resilience of these trapped, injured  and bewildered people,  Afghani, Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian. One can only pray for an end to the turmoil in their countries and in their lives. These poems are dedicated to them.


Contents                                                                                                         Page


Filippiada haiku                                                                                               3 - 11

Refugees                                                                                                         13

Arta Bridge                                                                                                     14

The Threat of a Storm                                                                                    14

Warehouse                                                                                                      15

Look-Out                                                                                                         15

Perhaps                                                                                                           16

Tent Peg                                                                                                          18

Anahita                                                                                                            19

Stone Throwers                                                                                               20

Hugs                                                                                                                20

Going to School                                                                                               21

Ali                                                                                                                    22

Mr Sneezy                                                                                                       23

Thesprotiko                                                                                                     24

Ice Cream                                                                                                       25

Naser                                                                                                               25

Not Dreaming                                                                                                 26

Narges                                                                                                             27

If You Should Ever Meet Them                                                                       28

I Can                                                                                                                30

A Kind of Haunting                                                                                          31

Holes                                                                                                               32

Zainab                                                                                                             33

Fundamental Errors                                                                                       33

Sound of the Storm                                                                                         33

Boat People                                                                                                     34

Swimming with Sharks                                                                                    35

Exodus                                                                                                             36

Syria                                                                                                                 36

Aid Workers                                                                                                    36


the barrier fell
and a family split by
hard stares, rough arms, hard hearts

headful of sorrow
a furnace of dirt and grit
heartstrings bound by wire


 just to think of her
terror in the night as
the boat split apart


 January sea
wreaking its own kind of terror
chilling to the bone


 trays of plastic food
discarded by the roadside
caught in the throat


lone tortoise rescued
the children know what it is
to live with fear

mercury rising
pricking exhausted skin
sky empty of birds


hot breeze sifts the grit
we seek out the walls for some
slim midday shade


 children of the dust
pulling the zips on my bag
hoping for a gift


 pushchairs and buggies
rattling over harsh gravel
with water rations


running children wild
clutching at stones
till play turns to war

behind polite smiles
bearing wounds on their hearts
where fires still burn


 common tragedies
but suspicions seep through
their ethnic clothing


 sunlight fingers the tents
amid coughs and prayers the
camp slowly rises


hey my friend, my friend
just for me, just for me
you no good, no good

those imploring eyes
that so slight infant body
too fragile to swing


 quiet Sunday morning
the village sleeps on but
we must be at work


 quiet in the camp
sleeping through the midday
but we sweat it out


 Iliana – the
pool of air we dive into
to keep our cool


 tyres crunching the track
engulfing pillows of dust
we are driving blind


 beneath sultry trees
from across the blue-green lake
this cool drift of air


 small children appear
creating their mayhem then
running away




they’re running for hugs

to be lifted off the earth

to know they’re still loved




the Afghan girls come

head scarves billowed by the breeze

‘hello my teacher’




hacked and maimed – this,

my hot and gusty school

my favourite tree





on a dusty bank

shaded by a tortured tree

wind disrupts my school




above heat and noise

in the cool plane trees of Arta

sparrows are singing




piling on the heat

Arta and I sweat it out

so cool beneath the trees




officer on the gate

checks nothing but the air-con

returns to sleep




from a Liverpool fan

free bed at the four star

Siyar Hotel





chai tent revives

I give away my shirt

for a cool place to chat




in the chai tent

how hot, sweet and lovely

we talk at end of day




shouts from the goalmouth

an international language

transcending borders




Spanish inquisition

deep gloom of the warehouse

tortured with heat




kids, rattling the locks

clambering the steel gate

craving attention





volunteers at work

in the warehouse where they must

preparei for winter




from Aladdin’s cave

a hidden child trying to

escape with a toy




her child drags a toy

yellow truck with broken wheels

across the hot stones




see the silver birds

wheeling, glinting in the sun

veils of mist rising




storks rattling like bones

gliding like premonitions

coming home to roost





‘my life has been hard

so hard every day but

will soon be over’




injured beyond pain

but this tortured tree still wants

to be our school




thunder getting close

intent on soaking my class

storm clouds gathering




strong gusts rips through

our tree school wrecked and scattered

but we still press on




desolate hillside

bears a dust-choked weariness

refugees, stay strong





caught in a moment

grit in the eye, or memory

holding back tears




as guests of honour

children dance and sing for us

fruit juice and cookies




split, scuffed and worn-out

dust-choked and weary I leave

my battered shoes behind




final round of goodbyes

but the children won’t let me

just fade away




hard to look back on

this white sea, these canvas waves

where some are drowning





they must not, I must not

disclose the pain of leaving –

goodbye my teacher




now I close my eyes

hear their voices clearly and

time is standing still








A flock of wounded doves

driven ragged into an empty cage

by blood-red fog and the blackened dew

of dawn

staggers to the end of the world.

The past echoes like thunder

in the dark clouds assembled

and a orchestrated breath

borne on a careless wind

wraps a barren land in shame.








Old lady of the river

Cracked and bent with time

Generations carried on your back

When you have waded across troubled times

You are now allowed to rest and soak your feet

In the trickle of cool blue water.







Storm clouds gather and ponder

Brooding over the billowing tents

Whether to blast in tumultuous deluge

To quietly drown or

Blow softly and allow them to drift away.















Hammering the warehouse door

Pleading for attention

Trying to evade the guardians

Of their welfare –

Wreaking gentle havoc

A game, for a steal;

Better than scrabbling in the dirt

Kicking a punctured ball

Dragging a broken toy

Or throwing rocks

To bite back the anger inside.







Children clamber the look-out steps,

Barber seeks its shade.

From here a soldier once stood guard

Now only ruins surveyed.











Perhaps it was you

Who first flitted across my dreams

A far away shadow across the screen

Amid screams and blasts

And the rattle of death,

Each rising pall of smoke

An end to life, and then

There was you, without face,

Without eyes or mouth or name

Trying to keep your grip.


Perhaps that was you running

Through the shattered streets,

Fearing the bullet but running anyway

To pay the black-hearted,

Join the river of humanity

Flowing away

From the place of your birth.


Perhaps it was you I saw

Trudging, blind and blistered

Across a frozen landscape,

The remains of a life in a plastic bag

As the world looked on.


Perhaps it was you

That brute force split you apart

And moved you back into the shameless night

And twisted razor wire around your heart.

Perhaps it was you

Who saw your child alter

From the child you knew,

Heard her night-screams,

Felt the wet bed,

Saw the flesh fall from her arms,

Her cheeks,

Eyes growing wild as her hair;

And you felt sorrow mingled in the blood

of your love and helplessness.


Perhaps you were among those we saw

Crammed on that leaking raft

Clinging to your child

As around you bodies floated.

Terror in the night as the world watched

In horror and debated.


Perhaps you were among those

Who staggered cold and wet,

Helped onto a foreign beach

By caring hands,

Terful and trembling and

Thanking God for your safe deliverance

But not knowing the road for you ahead.


But now it is you I see every day

Stripped of dignity

Pleading for your safety,

For an ear,

For a mind to unfold,

Who must feed the hope that one day

Life will be good again.


And as the bells ring out for Assumption Day,

It is you who greet me every day

With your smile,

Knowing this day will be like all the rest,

Trying to believe that somewhere

Someone is writing your future

Free of dust and heat and war, reunited

With those lost to you.

Your children will outgrow their memory and find

That life that is by rights yours and theirs..


Perhaps. I pray.







It was lying in the rubble

where it had been thrown,

considered of no further use

or pulled out and hurled

in a moment of frustration.

But though thought of as just another scrap,

In my hand it has a purpose and a job to do.






She wanted to write

but the words would not come –

thought them worthless, shameful,

a betrayal of her heart.


She wanted to draw

but the colours would not flow –

too soon for flowers and birds or clouds,

or places from her childhood

now torn apart – frightened

to release the power and savagery

of her inner eye that

may undo her mother’s fragile smile.


Perhaps she was right.

Perhaps she needed to know that

whatever lies buried will not reappear

but rot with time.

There will come a time to write, to draw,

to express the beauty of her mind

but for now she is sensing 

amidst the turmoil and confusion

a power that lies elsewhere

and that it’s not over yet.








They throw stones – at everything.

They spit and snarl, scream and shout

bite and pinch, kick and punch

from fiery pits of dark anger

they cannot explain

so for now they will continue to throw stones.







They run to us for hugs –

from anyone, at anytime.

They want to be lifted off the earth

and held with a softness meant

only for them

to hear softness in a voice

that is speaking to them alone –

no matter the language,

and a meeting of eyes and hearts.











Then one day

they came and took our schoolroom away –

small, small symbol of a normal world

of something happening for the children.


It had only just been painted –

clock face, an alphabet frieze, a new door,

a new nail to hang my poster from –

but they took it all away,

even the joy and liberty of knowledge denied.


Within a week lessons were learned beneath the trees,

Amidst the dirt and the ants,

the faeces and the bare concrete of the bunkers:

the children would not be denied – they loved their school.


And the former schoolroom?

Now a conversion project –

to become an air-conned sanctuary

for men to get a beard trim

and charge their mobile phones.











I was telling them of my past, my family,

that they might get used to my voice and

my voice gets used to me,

teacher, of that paced, precise English – key

to a future life they want to own.


So I outline my family tree,

chalk it onto card for all to see.

We practise familiar words –son,

daughter, brother, sister, mother, uncle,

grand and great grandparents.


They marvel at their dates and ages,

unsure about their own,

enjoying the novelty of pronunciation

of strange names with tongue and lips.


They listen as I explain and repeat

asking questions innocently

until my idiot brain takes over

to suggest they draw their own tree.


It only takes a second for the children to agree

but Faezah’s eyes are swimming .


Ali lays his pen down,

looks sadly up at me –

we have lost so many branches, says he.




You were the perfect visual aid, Kazim –

a natural.

I was teaching the ‘ee’ sound, as in ‘feet’

and suddenly you obliged with a verb of your own,

to the interest and amusement of us all.

We enjoyed the sneeze as we moved on to meet and greet

and Greece and sleep, but

you keep reminding us

with moisture on your cheek

and each time the children cheer

at our champion Afghan sneezer of the week!






These morning mountains seem tame,

their quiescence casting you into their cool blue.

The good people of the valley are watering their baskets,

their orchards, trimming  their vines.

A ripple of church bells sweetens the air

And the stork glides free to its nest.

But in the camp, just the battering of the children

on the steel warehouse door.








Once I saw a shop that sold ice cream.

My daughters love ice cream.

I like ice cream too, but I prefer chocolate.


Today there are jobs to be done in the haima

But tomorrow I will leave the camp and go with my children

into town.

We will walk beside the road for perhaps an hour.

It will be hot; they will be tired but

we will arrive in Filippiada and

I will find that shop and

I will buy ice cream for my brave and beautiful daughters,

whatever flavours they like –

and perhaps some chocolate for me.

















(based on a conversation between us)


To Ireland, you say!

I have not heard that wish expressed before –

It’s usually Germany, Sweden or Denmark.

Have you family already in Ireland? No?

But you think you know where it is.

Well, no! It’s not really in London.

OK, well it’s not exactly empty –

the land is not for free, though

the overall density of people if fairly low.


Yes, I think it would be hard to get to from London

and paying traffickers to get you there is not such a good idea.

No, I don’t know any.

To be honest, I don’t think your skills as a translator of Farsi into English

would be in great demand –

no, not for Pashto either, I’m afraid; there’s just no call…

There just aren’t many refugees living in Ireland,

at least not yet.

Oh! So that’s why you want so much to go there: no people!

To be free of the past; to make the ultimate escape.

But you need a positive reason.

Have you heard about the Guinness and Temple Bar? –

Perhaps not. They are of no consequence.


Ah! I see you have started learning Greek.

I think this is a wise decision, my friend.





A faint lick of air wafts the canvas awning

flicks up the midday heat a little

then settles back to sleep –

to sleep, if not to dream,

for dreaming permits Hope to be renewed,

so often dashed, denied or

sold back as a lie, so that now it seems

we are to be mocked even in sleep.


Looking back at dreams we shared,

for our children, for our land,

through the efforts of our own hands

tangible, real, fuelled with expectancy,

swept away on a tide of blood and bigotry;

swept away to join a sea of cant and hypocrisy.

We had such fine things – mosques, schools,

shops, markets, farms, orchards  - gone.

And so it is gentler to myself

not to think of a past realm where dreams once shone,

not to dream of a future in case those dreams too are washed way.

But to sleep through the boredom and heat

to give me enough strength

to see me through another day.









Every time I glance down I see

on my wrist the band you made me,

the one in the colours of Afghanistan.

Instantly I am re-immersed in your bright eyes,

your mischievous smile, your tragedy.

I replay the moments of fun when

you stood on my feet and we shuffled across the gravel

till you spun off to play some other game.

And there was you speaking Spanish to me

till you realised I was English; then you came

to my tree school and tried so hard – a good student

among many.

You will go far if they give you the chance, and

you will do your mother proud.

So I will wear your wrist band often and

count it among my treasures

for the light and life and love from which you made it.















If you should ever meet them, they will call to you,

run up to be picked or to high-five you then veer away,

run their fingers through your hair

and gaze into your eyes the better to know your heart.


They will clutch your waist and investigate accessories

test the zips and buckles on your bag,

proudly show you their small small achievements

and pull you to their haima.


They may push and jostle, shout and spit,

shove and kick without apparent reason

until you see that all must me equal

even in poverty.


They may clamber on your back and shoulders,

run off with your cap

investigate pockets for any gift that might be

‘just for them’.


They will take things they should not –

off you, of each other

needing to learn to share, to wait their turn,

to be patient,

to learn the rules of the game.


They will scale fences and cars,

clamour at the warehouse door

trying to get to the toys and food,

uninhibited refusals to obey,

wild as roadside flowers.



But if you should ever meet them

they will greet you with their English

and cuddle you back.

If they know your heart they will

give you what they have just made,

for it is all they have to give.

They will warn you of an open zip,                                                                     

invite you to their haima for hot sweet tea,

hosted with a civility born of a former life.


They will return that which you thought lost long ago

and will play with their siblings among the refuse and the dirt.

They will help at home washing clothes, collecting water,

cleaning the tent, preparing food,

learning the rules of economy and survival.


If you should ever meet them

they may irritate and frustrate

but they will charm and entertain

with their smiles, their laughter

their vivacity.

They will return your love and

will you not let you fade away,

nor you them, for they are children.






I can sit in my garden,

admire the flowers and the raspberries ripening,

I can listen to birds, listen to the news on the radio.

As I make a shopping list

I can smell the lavender and rosemary.

I can watch the washing flap madly as it dries in the sun,

mow the lawn and marvel at the variegated greens

dappled by filtered light.

I can sweep the gravel back to its path

feel my skin thrilling to a cool breeze.

I can see the planes pass over on their way to the sun,

watch the cat laze in his favourite spot.

I can welcome my family and hug them

and laugh and play and talk of silly things,

watch catch-up TV,

have another cup of tea if I like -

but then, I am not in Filippiada.
















I thought I could put those moments away,

in their own slot of time,

out of the way of every day

until I chose to bring them back to life.


I thought I could easily fold and pack them on my own,

store them on a shelf of my choosing

but instead they gently haunt my days,

taunt my nights, naked in the hours before dawn,

leading sleepless treks across sharp gravel

into caves of treasure useless to me.

I trip over ropes, grit blowing into my eyes

as I struggle to stop the tree from dying

and keep hopes alive.


Children holding broken toys

clamour for food, for knowledge, for attention

waiting for me to perform a miracle,

turning foul food into a feast and

blessing them with the sign of a refugee.


But in the end

I can perform only to my limits

restricted to that moment when

I tried to conjure change.


I thought I could safely put away that moment

but I can’t – not alone –

and I’m not sure I want to.



See these ragged holes the bullets made

in every street, in every single wall and door;

see the craters left by rocket shells –

a war leaves holes in so much more.






She likes stroking cats and dogs –

cats are her favourite –

and the Spice Girls and  One Direction –

but you can’t stroke them.


She lives within the prophet’s law

that angry men see fit to ignore -

It seems all they know is

what has been washed into their minds

and out of their mouths

dark and twisted words spread

through the blasphemy of the bomb.

Their well of morality dry as bone

as time ticks towards an end

when there can be no time for childhood

where all the cats and dogs are dead.    







You imagine your cause anointed

that God fights by your side

approving the evil persona

you seem to wear with pride.


But if He passed among you now

how could you not feel it’s true,

His fury and disgust,

how ashamed He’d be of you!






Throughout the silence of night

I lie awake till morning light,

cannot still my tortured mind

and leave my fears for you behind.


I see your face upon the screen

in barren fields that once were green

I feel the heat behind your tears

that seem to flow across the years.

I want to show how much I care

but not sure how, not sure where.


I want to comfort with a kiss

and fill your longings with a taste of bliss

I want to tell you it’s alright

I want to bring you peace tonight.


I regret not having the power

to turn the gun into a flower.

For though your world and mine may be far apart

we are joined together at the heart.      


But you look at me as if to say

‘Just take my life, throw it away;

this current of pain all my people know

is the only river that will ever flow’.






Beyond the lapping waves

afloat on the calm seas of summer

they drift away from the sun

huddled forms, jumbled voices

disconnected phrases in varied tones

betraying fear – few of them joking

then the silence.


Mother to child clings

not knowing the end

afraid to reach the bottom

of the bottle of water,

land lost to sight,

the only light

the impenetrable stars.

Adrift on the sick waves of sleeplessness,

nothing to lose but their lives

to be washed up on a golden beach.      





We tried to swim the open sea

but washed ashore

with every other wave

gasping for breath.

Left to dry out on sandbanks

like whales

till the next tide launches us

into foaming seas

growlers prowling

storm clouds tearing

at the fabric of the sky,

carried with the flow

into deeper waters.

Only hollow reeds and the power of prayer

saved us from drowning

just to face the next wave.


The ship passed us by -

indignant folk pointing, some shouting,

but not till our last gasp

did they throw a lifeline

opining it was we who chose

to go swimming with sharks.



As wild breakers roll

their bright spindrift blown

whirled from the roar and tumult of the fall

the punch and echo of cascading shells,

a balance has been tipped,

the choice between the lesser of two hells.

You must take to the salt-bitter trail

bearing nothing but the hope

that on a foreign shore

some kind of wisdom will prevail.



There is no love left in Syria, she says.

When she sleeps, she feels

she carries the souls of her friends

in her heart
and will do so till the end of her days.   


Blood seeps into an eastern sky
where a careless sun has cracked the earth,
where demonic winds turn quiet dreams to dust,
and the fires of hell are falling. 

Already they are risen. 

When there is no hiding but in confusion
and daytime shadows merge with nightghasts,
still they are there.
Even as their fingers burn
they hold a candle, hold a hand
and comfort till you sleep.




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