‘Home’ by Warsan Shire is a strikingly horrid poem about the sufferings of refugees. This poem was inspired by Shire’s 2009 piece ‘Conversations about Home (at a deportation centre).’ In this poem, Shire depicts the lived experiences of the refugees and immigrants, who, finding no other way out, had to leave the country they proudly called “home.” Home is not an idea of solace and comfort for them. It is a rather glaring cut on the skin that could not be healed with time.
‘Home’ by Warsan Shire describes the tragic journey of refugees in search of safety, shelter, and relief from the tremulous situation of their native country.
In this poem, the speaker describes the situation that makes one leave their dear country, home, and belongings. When the big shark-like countrymen hunt down others, bloodthirsty and ferocious, there is no other way out than to flee one’s country. The boy once the speaker made love with, holds a gun bigger than his body, waiting for her or his family. Thus, there is only one option left for the speaker: running.
Throughout this poem, the narrator describes horrific events that refugees have to endure on their journey out. For instance, women are sexually exploited by men of their father’s age. On top of that, they are sexually exploited by the prison guard. Reiterating the statement, “no one leaves home” or “no one chooses refugee camps” (or such a life), the narrator wants to portray the helplessness of the refugees worldwide.
no one leaves home unless
when you see the whole city running as well
Shire says, “no one,” literally nobody leaves “homes,” unless they are forced. When the home turns out to be the mouth of the shark. The sharp teeth of the shark’s mouth never differentiate between small or apparently bigger fish. It engulfs them all. Likewise, when the people become bloodthirsty, they can’t see who’s their own. At such difficult times, people have to flee their homes with their lives in their hands.
The barbed wire of the border becomes their sole goal. Anyhow they have to reach there in order to find a route out of hell. According to Shire, when one sees the whole city running as well, they have little time to comprehend the meaning. They just have to run. In tremulous times, such a situation occurs frequently when people become homeless overnight.
The narrative begins with the second-person point of view. The speaker addresses the refugees as “you” and tries to remember the days they badly want to forget.
your neighbors running faster than you
when home won’t let you stay.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes how the neighbors become competitors in a life-and-death game. It seems everyone is running faster to save their lives. The heavy breathing caused by nonstop running spills blood into their throats.
In the following line, the speaker shares one intimate memory. There was a boy she kissed behind the old tin factory. On the day of fleeing, he holds a big gun to kill whoever crosses his path. In such a situation, one has to leave home. The people, they thought their own, are out with machine guns to hunt them down.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
The third stanza begins with the same phrase, “no one leaves home unless,” reminding the audience of the main idea of the poem. In this section, Shire personifies “home,” chasing the people away. She describes the tremulous situation by the phrase, “fire under feet.” It means they cannot stand in their own country for a second. They have to run until they are alive.
The “hot blood in your belly” seems to be a hint at a pregnant woman. She has to run with another life residing in her womb. No one ever thought they would have to face this day until the threat to their lives hung over their necks like a burnt blade.
Even then they held the national anthem close to their hearts. They tried to sing for the last time before leaving their country permanently. After reaching the airport, they tore their passports to make sure they wouldn’t have to return. It is not that they did not want to return. When there is a question of life and death, none can return to a place where they will surely die.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
wants to be beaten
wants to be pitied
In this section, the speaker directly addresses the readers. She makes them understand that no one puts their dear children in a boat for the sake of adventure. They do so when the water is much safer than the land. She further describes how the refugees suffer on their flight. Their palms burn while staying beneath train carriages. The scorched granites cause the burn.
No one wishes to spend several days and nights in a truck. The speaker metaphorically describes the truck’s carriage as its “stomach.” As nobody can go out of the track, it feels like they are inside the stomach of a huge animal. Having nothing to eat, they eat newspapers like cattle. According to the speaker, their long journey out home in no way seems like a trip.
In the following lines, Shire uses anaphora for the sake of emphasis. The speaker says that anyone wants to crawl under fences to cross the border and wants to be beaten or pitied. They are humans and no human desires to be tortured or exploited.
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
Continuing the idea, Shire says, no one chooses refugee camps. They do not want to be treated like criminals. On top of that, nobody wants to end up in such refugee camps or prisons. However, for those who cannot return to their country and literally have nowhere to go, prison somehow brings a sense of security and comfort. Besides, one prison guard’s exploitation at night is better than that of a truckload of men. They look like one’s father and commit such heinous acts on girls.
In the last three lines, Shire again uses anaphora. She reiterates the fact that it is impossible to bear or digest. No “skin” (a use of synecdoche) is tough enough to endure the pain.
go home blacks
maybe it’s because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
The sixth stanza is written from the perspective of onlookers who comment on those human beings as if they are outcasts. In this section, Somali poet Warsan Shire particularly refers to the Black refugees. They call them “dirty immigrants,” “asylum seekers,” and “niggers.” According to them, they have drawn out the resources of their own country. Now they have come to this country to draw theirs.
They can be found on the streets begging. They smell strange like savage creatures. Without any sympathy, they remark, “[they] messed up their country and now they want/ to mess ours up”. In the following lines, the speaker changes the point of view and asks the refugees how they can endure their “dirty” words and “dirty” looks that roll off their backs. It is because the verbal blow is much softer than the physical one.
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your survival is more important
Continuing the chain of thoughts, the speaker says, the harsh words are more tender than fourteen men between a girl’s legs. This contrast is shocking yet true. The insults on them are easier to swallow than the rubbles, bones, and one’s child’s body into pieces.
It is for the first time the speaker uses the first-person perspective. She wants to go home. But home is not what it used to be. Now it is like a shark’s mouth and a gun’s barrel pointed at her. Home chased her out to the shore to seek another safer land. It told her to pace up to save their lives. Thus, having no other option left, they had to leave all their belongings behind and crawl through the desert and wade through the oceans.
Shire uses one-word lines to put special emphasis on the ideas. She describes how they drowned, were later saved, and were taken to a different country. There they had to beg, forgetting their pride. When survival becomes a priority, one has to let go of their pride.
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
is safer than here
The last stanza of ‘Home’ begins in the same vein as it has begun. Shire refers to the “sweaty voice” of “home.” It means the personified idea of home is also running with the people. Her voice is sweaty, weary, and hopeless. All she could tell them is to run away, leave her at once. She herself does not know what she has become. But she knows anywhere in the entire world is safer than where they live. This voice is not that of the home only; it is of millions of refugees who are out there on the streets, beneath railway carriages, flooding the trucks, plastic covered, and looking filthy. While looking back for the last time, there was only one thought in their minds: “anywhere is safer than here.”
Structure and Form
‘Home’ is a free-verse monologue of a speaker, representing the refugees. There is no regular rhyme or meter in the poem. However, there is a rhyme in the last words of the poem, “anywhere” and “here.” Shire uses the second-person pronouns “you” and “your” in order to describe the plight of refugees. She shifts from the voice of the refugees to that of their country and also presents the remarks of the onlookers. The poem consists of a total of eight stanzas that are connected internally.
Shire uses a number of literary devices in ‘Home’ that include:
- Repetition: The narrator often uses the term “home” throughout the poem. On one hand, this idea represents the love of the refugees for their motherland. On the other hand, this idea reminds them of the dangers and troubles of their own country that made them flee. Besides, there is a repetition of the phrase “no one leaves home” at the beginning of the first, third, and last stanzas.
- Enjambment: It is used throughout the poem. For instance, the use of the device in the first stanza makes readers go through them in one go, without any pause: “no one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of the shark/ you only run for the border/ when you see the whole city running as well”. The last is continued in the following stanza.
- Metaphor: In this poem, Shire compares “home” to the “mouth of a shark” and the “barrel of the gun.” The shark’s mouth hints at the savagery of the countrymen and the gun’s barrel points at the impending death of the refugees if they returned to their homes.
- Imagery: Shire uses visual imagery to describe the plight of the refugees on the way out: “no one puts their children in a boat/ unless the water is safer than the land”. She also uses organic imagery to convey the feelings of despair, fear, and hopelessness of the refugees and immigrants.
- Symbolism: The “home,” which is an apparent symbol of safety and relief, is portrayed as a warning sign in this poem. For those who fled their country, home is a nightmare, an open cut on their hearts.
The important themes of Shire’s ‘Home’ include the suffering of refugees, immigration, racism, and helplessness. In this long narrative, Shire throws light on the journey of the refugees from their homeland to a different country. She describes their lived experiences from the perspective of one such immigrant. Another recurring motif in the poem is the idea of home. The speaker describes home, not as a place of safety and comfort, but as a place filled with all sorts of atrocities. She also recounts the horrid experiences of the refugees on their flight. Some were sexually exploited, treated like savage creatures, and not accepted as their own.
Served as the first Young Poet Laureate for London and the youngest member of the Royal Society of Literature, Warsan Shire’s poetry gives voice to the marginalized, immigrants, and refugees. She was born in Kenya to Somali parents in 1988. At the age of one, they migrated to the UK. As a first-generation immigrant, she uses her poetry to connect with Somalia, her motherland, where she has never been to. She utilizes the experiences of her close relatives, family members, and other immigrants as the basis of her works.
In 2009, she made a visit to the abandoned Somali Embassy in Rome, the “home” of some young refugees. The night before her arrival a young Somali had jumped off the roof. This incident coupled with the harsh reality of living as abandoned refugees was the inspiration for her poem ‘Conversations about home (at a deportation centre).’ This piece later influenced her to write the poem ‘Home.’
It reached the hearts of millions as a ceasefire and went viral on several occasions. As long as there is a raging refugee crisis across the globe, this poem will never lose its importance. The lines, “no one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark” will return again and again.
Warsan Shire wrote the poem ‘Home’ to give a firsthand description of the plight of refugees. She listened to the horrid tales of fleeing the country from her family members and close relatives. Thus, she is sympathetic to the suffering of millions of refugees and through this poem, she wants to give them a voice. All she wants is to show the world how broken and bruised they already are.
Warsan Shire’s poem ‘Home’ is about the suffering of refugees and immigrants both inside and outside of their country. This poem vividly describes their lived experiences from the lens of an immigrant.
Shire wrote the prose poem ‘Conversations about home (at a deportation centre)’ in 2009 after her visit to a refugee camp. This piece was the inspiration behind writing the poem ‘Home’.
According to Warsan Shire, no one leaves home unless they are forced to. When it becomes apparent that living in one’s country will lead them to death, they have to leave the place as soon as possible. Their only priority is survival in such a situation.
Shire uses the symbols of the “mouth of a shark” and the “barrel of a gun” to describe “home.” Both symbols stand for danger and death.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Warsan Shire’s poem ‘Home.’
- ‘Immigration’ by Ali Alizadeh — This poem explores the emotional and mental toll immigration takes.
- ‘The Émigrée’ by Carol Rumens — This piece pictures childhood idealization and the miserable situation of the refugees.
- ‘Deportation’ by Carol Ann Duffy — This piece is told from the perspective of an immigrant deported from Britain.
- ‘We Refugees’ by Benjamin Zephaniah — This poem is about the discrimination refugees face and the unfairness of society.
You can also read these poems about home.