At the moment, 68.5 million people are displaced around the globe. Half of them are women, with families and relatives to care for and unique dangers to contend with. When we talk about refugees in the United States, they tend to be invoked in debates on the news—and then forgotten about until the next time their situation turns dire enough to make headlines.
But the British Somali poet Warsan Shire tries her best to keep them three-dimensional. Red-blooded. Human.
Born to Somali parents in Kenya, Shire is responsible for the line that’s become a motto and a battle call for refugees and their advocates: “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark.” (She’s also the writer whose poems were sampled on Beyoncé’s Lemonade album.)
Since her own girlhood, she’s addressed issues of migration and displacement. In one of her best-known works, she writes: “later that night / i held an atlas in my lap / ran my fingers across the whole world / and whispered / where does it hurt? / it answered / everywhere / everywhere / everywhere.”
In honor of International Women’s Day, Shire teamed up with the International Rescue Committee in partnership with Girl Rising to produce a short film that speaks to the realities that refugees face and the ones that affect girls in particular. Brave Girl Rising is based on the real life events of Nasro, a 17-year-old Somali refugee who’s grown up in the Dadaab Refugee Camp. She stars in the film, which Shire wrote. Shire is judicious about her collaborations, not just because she’s protective of her time and attention but because she has no social media presence and is reluctant to talk to the press about her work. (It speaks for itself—loudly.) But when Girl Rising approached her, she didn’t hesitate. “I knew it would be a massive opportunity to bring light and awareness to girls in Somalia,” she says. “And I’m always looking for the opportunity to do something more important with my work.”
Tessa Thompson, who narrates the short with David Oyelowo, told Glamour she signed on to the film in the hopes that it would inspire audiences to stand up and demand action: “In fighting for equal rights here in the United States, we cannot forget the millions of refugee women and girls around the world who face gender inequalities every day.”
The sheer magnitude of the crisis is hard to take in, and Shire knows just how fast a person can feel powerless. But Girl Rising chief creative officer Martha Adams, who co-directed the film, cautions against helplessness. “The refugee crisis is staggering but the truth is we have a solution,” she says. “When you prioritize girls’ education and life-skills programs, nations stabilize and prosper.”
But the film isn’t a PSA. Instead it delves deep into Nasro’s life and explores how she sees the world around her. Despite the circumstances, she finds hope. “Love always finds a way to exist,” Thompson narrates at one point in the short. “May we find love everywhere we go.”
Here, Shire tells Glamour how she developed her script, what she does when she misses home, and how she learned the power of stories. Brave Girl Rising is available to stream now.
Glamour: Your work speaks to political circumstances, and I think the reason this film resonates is because it uses storytelling to talk about what is a political and social situation. When did you realize poetry had that power?
Warsan Shire: I learned that really, really early. I grew up in the 1990s in London when the Somali civil war was at its height. The news was always on, so we grew up with the backdrop of hearing the statistics, seeing the photos. We would see a lot of poverty porn, a lot of really grotesque images without any humanity in them.