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Her Syrian cousin died on a migrant ship. This is the poem she wrote for him and other refugees

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Zena Agha is a 23-year-old Harvard student and spoken word poet who relates to the refugee crisis in a way most of her peers cannot.

Exactly a year ago to the day she recorded this video — on Nov. 16 — she found out her cousin Amjad, who lived in Damascus, died on a migrant ship that likely capsized on its way from Turkey to Greece. 

Amjad was in her thoughts and she wrote this piece, “The Sea is Big” which she’ll perform tonight at PRI’s forum on refugee crisis at Harvard Kennedy school.

“I think it’s important to have this event and conversation now because it feels like the strings that are keeping us together are gradually getting frayed,” Agha says. “I anticipate dark times ahead, especially with Paris being linked to refugees, and the most vulnerable in society being blamed, inadvertently or otherwise for what’s being done, and they are voiceless in responding.”

She hopes the poem makes listeners think more deeply about the refugee crisis, how they relate to it, and perhaps stirs them to act. 

“If I can provoke that in people, to make them think about the vulnerability [of the refugees], and actually help them take that step, that leap, into the unknown and away from everything that they know,” she says. “If I can create an empathetic bridge for them, through the poem, that that will create a really powerful success story.”

The father's side of her family is ethnically Palestinian and settled in Damascus after 1967. Her father left to teach in Algeria, and migrated to London in the 70s with 200 French francs in his pocket. "He went to start a shipping company that focused on sending goods to the Middle East. His siblings, two brothers and a sister, remained in Syria. It was during family visits that Agha, who grew up in London, got to know her cousin, Amjad. 

Her father told her Amjad had tried to make the trip across the Mediterranean. She was devastated when she found out Amjad, like so many others, didn't make it. 

“Last year, I cried in the shower for a long time. And this year I took a deep breath after doing the final take [of the poem], and I thought ‘This is me doing my part for him, and for everyone else, so in many ways it impacted me while writing it, it impacted me while performing it. It causes me a lot of grief if I think about it but also empowerment because without their struggle, I wouldn’t be who I am. And without his story, I wouldn’t have the ability to try and share it. And it’s a daily reminder that I have privilege and I must use that.”

‘He is one of many. He is not nameless and faceless, like other hundreds if not thousands are, but that doesn’t make it any better, so he’s in my thoughts, they are all in my thoughts, but also the thought that I could so easily be them. There is no different in blood nor genes between us and if I were to dwell on the injustice of that, it would drive me insane, so instad of that happening, I’m writing it down and performing it."

Here is more poetry about what it's like to be a refugee.

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