Within We Refugees, Zephaniah discusses the ease at which someone can be forced to leave their country, and the fact that we ‘all came from refugees’. He talks of the discrimination that refugees face, pointing out how unfair society can be. He reflects on the process of becoming a refugee, stating that it can happen to anyone, it is merely a fact of luck.
Structure in We Refugees
Zephaniah splits We Refugees into 10 stanzas. Eight of the ten stanzas measure four lines, while stanza five and ten measure eight and ten lines respectively. There is no rhyme scheme within the poem. Zephaniah employs enjambment on many of the lines, with the poem flowing quickly to each end stop. You can read the full poem here.
The Title – ‘We Refugees‘
The title of We Refugees effectively summarises the main argument of the whole poem. By binding himself to the reader with the collective pronoun ‘we’, Zephaniah suggests that each and every one of us is a ‘refugee’. Not only does this link to the idea within stanza 10 that ‘we all came from refugees’, but also relates to the idea from stanza 5 that anyone can become a refugee at any moment. This title effectively binds together the main ideas of the poem, giving an insight to the topic before the poem has even begun.
We Refugees Analysis
The first stanza begins with the personal pronoun of ‘I’. This centres We Refugees on the personal experience of the Benjamin Zephaniah. The personal ‘I come’ chimes throughout the poem at the beginning of many of the stanzas. This not only continually gives the poem a personal tone, but also reminds the reader of a sense of movement within the poem. This ‘come’ suggests the coming to a new country after fleeing his home. This sense of immigration permeates throughout the poem and is a key theme.
The reference to ‘brother’ torturing ‘brother’ within this stanza gives the impression of social unrest in the country he is fleeing from. The familial tone, ‘brother’, is not a reference to someone he is related to by blood, but the idea of community. Yet this community is disrupted, with ‘brother’ turning on ‘brother’. It is here that Zephaniah focuses on the state of disruption within his country.
The three strong verbs set the tone of this stanza: ‘hate’, ‘don’t like’, ‘ban’. The poet portrays his home country as oppressive and brutal, with the spiteful comments displaying the unpleasantness of the place. By collocating the words ‘ban’ and ‘free’, Zephaniah elevates the contrast between the two concepts. The complete oppressive nature of the country is stated here.
Moreover, the contrast between the ‘beautiful place’ that he remembers and the oppressive country he sees disturbs the poet. The jarring lack of rhyme falling on ‘poetry’ is difficult to read, making the flow of We Refugees seem clunky. This rough structure is reflective of the oppressive country, not quite meeting the expectations of the poet.
This stanza gives more information about the state of the country which Zephaniah is writing about. Again, the harsh contrast between the ‘beautiful place’ and the actuality of what Zephaniah describes is apparent. Here, there is serious gender inequality and school systems which tell what ‘to believe’. The reference to ‘young boys’ who ‘grow beards’ is a reference to the Islam custom, perhaps suggesting that the country he is describing is one that prescribes to the muslim faith.
Zephaniah further presents the degeneration of the ‘beautiful place’ he once knew within this stanza. The ‘great old forest’ has been destroyed, leaving nothing but ‘a field’ The destruction of nature and the loss of something described as ‘great’ typifies the sense of loss.
Moreover, the final two lines of this stanza are ambiguous. It could be that the people he ‘once knew’ have also escaped the country’s unrest. Yet, there is also a possibility that they have died. The references in earlier stanzas to the unrest embed this possibility. This ambiguity is unsettling at this point in the poem. Stanza 5 quickly follows this bleak moment, and discusses the issues further.
We Refugees stanza Five breaks the typical structure of the poem, straying from quatrains to a stanza that measures 8 lines. It is within this disruption that he draws the reader’s attention to the message of the poem.
Within the first line, he states ‘we can all be refugees.’ This binding between the reader and poet replicates the style first used within the title, the ‘we’ pronoun being the connective link. The use of ‘all’ further compounds this sense of connection. The triple repetition of ‘we can all’ culminates into a powerful projection of this message.
The repetition of ‘someone’ in the last two lines of this stanza show the ridiculous discrimination against refugees. The ‘someone’ that discriminates is the same ‘someone’ that is being discriminated against. Zephaniah suggests that it would be easy for the circumstances to change and things to end up differently. Discrimination based on where someone comes from is ridiculous, ‘we all came from refugees’.
This stanza focuses on the possibility that someone may have to seek refuge after the occurrence of a natural disaster. He uses the examples of ‘floods’ and ‘hurricane[s]’, to suggest that people must ‘keep moving on’. This references the idea that an event which leads to people having to seek refuge could happen anywhere. The random nature of these natural events reflect the sudden change that can occur within the lives of people.
Zephaniah explores the loss of culture in this stanza. The ‘ancient’ place is somewhere unknown to the poet, he cannot go and live there. Although he wants to, it is simply not safe. The disconnection between him and his ‘family’ who were ‘born there’ is explored through his desire ‘to go’, but because of the fact it is too dangerous ‘to live’, he cannot.
The ignorance of people taking holidays to places from which others have to flee is explored through this stanza. Zephaniah suggests that this is common to white people, with them going to ‘darken skin’ through tanning. The ignorance of the disasters and turmoil happening in the country, simply going for tourism seems disgusting after the previous stating of the horrors that are happening in this ‘beautiful place’.
This stanza again employs repetition, ‘I am told’, to emphasise the line. The passivity of ‘I am told’ suggests that people are lecturing to Zephaniah, even though this is a personal (‘I’) problem that he knows much more about. This relates to the previous stanza’s ignorance.
This stanza, similarly to stanza 5, disrupts the structure of We Refugees, being longer than the other stanzas at 10 lines. The significance of the tenth stanza having ten lines gives the poem a sense of completion, and indeed it is within this stanza that Zephaniah reflects.
The first sentence is the sentiment he has been trying to project through the poem, ‘we can all be refugees’. It could be war, or natural disaster, or simply a spot of bad luck which can change someone into a ‘refugee’. The vague nature of ‘sometimes’ furthers this idea, suggests it could be at literally any time. There is no reason, these things simply happen.
The final line reestablishes the sense of connection within the poem. The collective ‘we all’, linked to the previous anaphora of ‘I came’, with ‘we all came’ binds the poet and the reader, sharing in his personal history through the poem. The nondescript nature of ‘here’ and ‘somewhere’ again lead to the poem being applicable to anyone, furthering this sense of global connection that Zephaniah attempts to establish.
Zephaniah argues that we can all be made refugees, it is merely bad luck. The disregard of how ‘we are all refugees’ is ignorant, and Zephaniah scorns this. We Refugees attempts to end the discrimination against refugees, binding the world of the reader and poet together.