Writers Respond to Refugee Images

Glenn Patterson, Jan Carson and Colin Dardis imagine life as displaced people around the world, as part of Oxfam Ireland exhibition touring NI libraries

A new exhibition by Oxfam Ireland asks authors and poets to picture themselves in the position of millions who have been cast from their homes through conflict, natural disasters and destitution.

Write to Refuge comprises powerful photos of refugees and displaced people from Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, Syria and around the world, alongside specially commissioned written pieces inspired by each image.

Northern Ireland-based writers Glenn Patterson, Colin Dardis, Jan Carson, Laurence Donaghy and Tony Bailie are amongst more than 20 from across Ireland to contribute with short works of fiction, poetry and personal reactions to the striking stills on display.

Opening at Derry Central Library on February 2, the exhibition will launch with guest speakers and readings from some of the featured authors from 6pm. After February 27 it will move to Omagh (March 1 - 26) as part of a nationwide tour in conjunction with Libraries NI, followed by Lurgan (March 28 - April 30), Lisburn (April 31 - May 26), Bangor (June 1 - 30) and Belfast's Falls Road library (August 1 - 30).

Read contributions below by authors Glenn Patterson and Jan Carson, and poet Colin Dardis, and get involved with Oxfam's Right to Refuge campaign, which has helped highlight the plight of 65 million people, by giving what you can today.

Walk by Glenn Patterson

17 Syria - Ahmad and Nour from Syria arrive in Serbia. Name changed to protect identity. Photo - Sam Tarling, Oxfam.jpg

Ahmad and Nour from Syria arrive in Serbia. Photo - Sam Tarling, Oxfam

I took your photograph with me in the car the August Bank Holiday we went with our girls to Hillsborough Forest Park.

We talked as we walked, my wife and I, trying to remember the last time we had been there: the elder girl – Anna Karenina under her arm today – still in her buggy, which meant the younger – clambering now on every low hanging branch, narrating non-stop in full Accents of the World Roulette Wheel mode – couldn’t have been there, been here, at all.

How strange to think.

How quickly our worlds become set.

We had left the picnic in the car rather than haul the baskets and rugs about, thinking we would find a spot we liked and one of us would double back. But the day was hotter than we had bargained for, the walk around the lake longer, and pretty soon, even bagless and rugless, we were all four fractious.

'Enough,' I thought on the double-back. 'Enough.'

And when I opened the door your photograph was still on the passenger seat.

And you were still gripping your daughter’s hand to steady her and to reassure her you were steady too.

And she was still looking right through the camera at me.

And all around you, all the long road behind you, was still chaos.

And oh how quickly how quickly our worlds crumble.

And I thought anything I have done or said or written up to now it isn’t enough, not anywhere near enough.

Audacity by Colin Dardis

Sarah and Arthur, Democratic Republic of Congo. Names changed to protect identity. Photo - Eleanor Farmer, Oxfam.jpg

Sarah and Arthur, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo - Eleanor Farmer, Oxfam

Take a child.

Bloody her.

Drown him.

Kill his parents.

Shoot her brother.

Kidnap his sister.

Bomb their school.

Burn their village.

Starve their family.



a boat capsize,

a cargo of bodies,

a coffin wave on a funeral shore.


Take a child

out of her mother’s arms.

Let the mosquitos

feed on her tears

after the blood has drained.



a mortar explode,

a home collapse,

a country implode under the blast.


Take this child.

Take him water.

Take her food.

Take him bandages.

Take her medicine.

Take his hurt.

Take her fear.

Take them all.

One in One Hundred Thousand by Jan Carson

One in one hundred thousand, South Sudan. Photo - Pablo Tosco, Oxfam

One in one hundred thousand, South Sudan. Photo - Pablo Tosco, Oxfam

Seven is a good sharp number. It is quite easy to imagine seven items or, for that matter, seven people standing next to each other in a line. The first person might enjoy chess and the next have a twin brother, identical, but with brown eyes instead of blue. The last of the seven could be awfully good with her hands, carving small items, such as spoons and letter openers, out of wood. She may also laugh like clean water in a cup.

With seven people you will remember the slim details: the dots and stops of intonation, the way a hand is rested inside a second hand like a kind of shell, how a scarf is worn, high or loose across the shoulder. You will notice the particular way each person’s face lifts when they speak the name of a dear friend. The faces will be anchors, catching every time you encounter a chessboard, or a wooden spoon resting on a kitchen counter.

Time is also divisible by seven; this has little to do with days in the week. It is simply easier to slice a day, a month or hour into smaller increments. For example, a single evening can bear the weight of seven separate conversations, each one rich as Christmas. You will remember each of these conversations and carry, from this one to the next, a sentence or small thought like a kind of souvenir.

It is possible for seven people to catch on you and never let go. You will not feel the pinch of them. You were made to carry people and seven is a very manageable number. The same holds true for ten, thirteen and most numbers, up to and including, twenty. After this the thought of people will begin to blur, like words read through greaseproof paper or sand.

One hundred thousand is a number with no fine detail. It is a kind of blunt instrument and desperately hard to unpick. When seeing one hundred thousand items or, for that matter, people you will automatically let your eye fall loose. You will look down the side of them in the same way you both watch and do not watch terrible things on television. There is no place for the mind to focus with a number as large as one hundred thousand. One million and two million are similar. A billion is like trying to say eternity with a full mouth.  

There are one hundred thousand people living in Mingkaman camp for displaced people in Awerial, South Sudan. Originally these people came from other places; places where they were one in seven, or twelve or some, more precious number. They were once women or teachers, doctors, artists or fathers, people known for the way they could dance or pitch a song like a straight arrow. Here, they are just people. They are one hundred thousand people. It is hard for any of them to say, 'this is me and that is you,' for they are learning that other people cannot tell the difference.

If you have the time or the inclination you can say each of their names aloud, one after the other, like a roll call or a shopping list: Anita, Akong, Mohammed, Okot, Alimah, Grace. You can look at photos of each displaced person as you struggle to pronounce their Sudanese names, noting a red scarf here, a blue sweater there, a child with eyes like your own child’s, laughing. This will feel like a kind of prayer: supplication, or perhaps more honestly, confession. The speaking out of all these names will cost you approximately 763 minutes. This is 12.7 hours, or just over half a day.

Afterwards, you will struggle to remember even ten of the hundred thousand names you have just spoken aloud. You will not be able to hold a single face against its proper name. You will feel then as if you have stolen something from each of these people; a vital thing, like a tooth or a firstborn child. You will feel terrible. You must not feel terrible. No one person can carry a number as large as one hundred thousand, though some are given little choice.