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Malawi refugee asks: Imagine yourself, a refugee

Trésor, a student of the Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins Performing Arts course, performs a dramatic poem for visitors. (Patrick Keaveny/Jesuit Refugee Service)
Monday, December 09, 2013

(Dzaleka, Malawi) December 9, 2013 — Beautiful and haunting imagery electrified Trésor Nzengu Mpauni's poem "Imagine" during an afternoon performance in Dzaleka refugee camp. The poem, at first serene, gained momentum with such emotion and intensity that the ending was a powerful reminder not only of his struggle, but the struggles of many refugees. 

This poem is a message: Trésor invites all people to imagine themselves in the life of a refugee. 

He said the poem came to him as he reflected on a conversation he had with a Malawian in Lilongwe, who referred to Trésor as 'Maburundi,' a term used to refer to refugees in Dzaleka who are considered Burundian. Trésor decided to write "Imagine" to explain why individuals from all over Africa become refugees, and to change the perceptions others have of them.

"I'm trying to write and perform for change, I'm trying to change how locals perceive refugees," said Trésor, a graduate of the Performing Arts course with Jesuit Commons: Higher Education on the Margins (JC:HEM).

After graduating, he made contact with the Lilongwe Poetry Society, eventually receiving the opportunity to perform French and English poetry at City of Stars, one of Lilongwe's most significant cultural events.

"I was delighted to perform at City of Stars, I was very alive, and felt like I was at home on stage," he said.

Performing with energy and enthusiasm Trésor entices his audience as he recites his lines. His hands, his feet, his whole body are a part of his performance; it's difficult to let one's mind wander when watching Trésor.

Trésor said he believes poetry is meant to inspire change, especially in regards to altering the perceptions refugees have of themselves.

"Poetry has the power to tell other refugees that being a refugee is not itself a barrier. We can become famous, we can succeed in whatever we do; we can be seen."

Trésor came to Dzaleka from the Democratic Republic of Congo to escape conflict and routine threats on his life. He left his life as a rapper and journalist after writing a poem criticizing the government; he started receiving death threats and his fellow journalists began to disappear.

When he came to the refugee camp in 2008 — after traveling more than 1200 miles — his university degree, his press credentials and his life's achievements were all but worthless. He had to start over. 

Trésor stopped writing poetry when he got to Malawi, because he thought no one would listen.

"I stopped writing and doing anything artistic because there was no motivation. Even if I performed, no one would come. I was very depressed, very traumatized," he said.

He explains that those are the moments he turns to God; sometimes faith can be only thing that brings certainty to an uncertain situation.

"The biggest thing that makes me feel alive in the camp is my faith. It's like a torch, giving me light wherever I go."

Whether performing in English or French, Trésor believes God allows his audience to feel the message of his poems. He feels that poetry amplifies his voice, as well as those of his fellow refugees. He tries to write poems that reflect what refugees have to say.

"Sometimes people come to me and say 'you have changed our way of thinking.' I'm very happy for that," he said.

by Patrick Keaveny, JRS Southern Africa Communications Assistant


Just imagine yourself in such a situation!
Imagine yourself between the hammer and the anvil Swimming in mud and dust; feet to the doors of the abyss. Imagine one day, a bomb falls on your palace
And creates a bloodbath all around;
Imagine that one day your playground turns into a cemetery; Where the local bar becomes a site of desolation and tears. Imagine the soft music that caressed your soul disappears And instead, you hear the noise of boots and the crackle of Kalashnikovs.
Will you accept to stay and die or choose to flee to stay alive?

Imagine one morning, armed executioners arrive at your door, Hitting you soundly without sparing your mother, your father and your whole family.
Imagine that under threat of death

You are forced to have sex with your own mother;
That with your eyes you see an ugly duckling deflower your sister of nine years old
Caressing her with a bayonet.
Imagine one day that you see people without a heart assaulting a woman who is nine months pregnant
Will you accept to stay there to see the same
people go unpunished and inherit the throne?
Or will you go somewhere else be rid of the trauma to come back with a new spirit?
Imagine one day you're a victim of tribal conflicts and one morning your whole family is burned alive;
Imagine that due to religious belief or because of political affiliations, people are guillotined and beheaded.
Will you accept to wait your turn or run to save your life?

Imagine one day because of your opinions, because of a poem or a song denouncing inequality and misdeeds of a corrupt regime;
And in the end, the government pursues you for your disruptions

Running the risk of disappearing into the wild without leaving a trace
Or being imprisoned and then being released with poison in your body.

Will you stubbornly accept this and wait for death or will you flee until the regime changes to return home with to a country worthy of pride?

Imagine a sudden situation arises and steals all your wealth to make you a little beggar.

If it happened to others, it can happen to you too.

Those who mourn today laughed like you yesterday!
Those who beg today were rich like you yesterday!
Those who die of hunger today threw food in the trash like you yesterday!
Those who sleep outside today had a comfortable home like you yesterday!
But from the summit where they were, the lightning of the human wickedness reached them and buried them in the margins of society!

Just imagine yourself in such a situation! 

by Trésor Nzengu

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