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The Empathy Poems project is designed to raise awareness about the plight of asylum seekers and refugees.


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A man came to my shoreline
In a rusty boat, and I in border uniform,
To seek shelter there.
On the choppy grey waves of the roughened sea
I came in patrol with my guns
And must wait, must stand and wait, while he struggled on to the deck before me.

He reached up out of his tattered life jacket
And dragged his thin body over the edge of the rail,
And rested his bones upon the metal deck,
And when water was offered in a plastic bottle
He sipped with his dry mouth
Slowly drank through his swollen lips, into his slack body

People were creeping in at my borderline
And I, like a true guardian, resenting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as cattle do,
And tried to make his swollen tongue say thank-you, and thought a moment,
And stopped and drank a little more,
Being dark brown, skin shredded from the weeks at sea
On this day of an Australian summer, with storms brewing.
The voice of my government said to me
He must be stopped.
For in Australia those we allow in officially are harmless, those in boats are venomous.

And voices in me said, if you were a man
You would put him in detention and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How moved I was he had come like a gambler in life in a leaky boat
To seek asylum, and stay safe, peaceful and unafraid.

Was it cowardice, that I dared not help him? Was it perversity that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility to feel so moved?
I felt so moved.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid for your job you would help him.

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, not honoured
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the breaking waves of the sea.

He drank enough
And lifted his head fearfully seeing our set faces
And darted his eyes at our uniforms, so black,
Seeming to realise,
And looked around at set unwelcoming faces,
And slowly dropped his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if in a nightmare
Saw instead of a shelter the barbed wire
And high walls of a detention centre.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, trying to straighten his shoulders, and entered further,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my gun,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the metal gates with a clatter

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind spasmed in remembered fear
He looked for cover, and was gone
Into the black hole, the metal lipped fissure in the wall front
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed training.

And I thought of the albatross
And wished he would come back, my refugee.

For he seemed to me again like a sign,
Like a sign of all in exile, homeless in the face of closed borders
Now lost to the future.

And so I missed my chance to change the course
Of his life.
And I have something to expiate:
That I turned away.


What a piece of work

Asylum Seekers