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Syrian poet Kholoud Charaf, granted a two-year residency in the Polish city of Kraków, is making good use of her new position to speak out about the suffering caused by the civil war in Syria and of the refugees who have fled the conflict.
In poetry and prose, and more directly at public appearances, she has written and spoken about their plight, calling on people to open their hearts to refugees.
She tells audiences: “The suffering of one nation somewhere is always the suffering of the whole of humanity.
“Refugees are human beings like you. We did not leave our homes, our memories, our childhoods, our language and our culture because we wanted to take your lives away from you. We left because we were forced by war.”
Kholoud herself is not a refugee but arrived in Kraków earlier this year on a scholarship to write in residence for two years in a peaceful place. The city of Kraków is funding her stay and she has a room in the Villa Decius, a restored Renaissance palace in a leafy suburb that is now a cultural centre.
“Kraków feels like coming home,” says Kholoud, 38, who, since arriving from Syria in February, has been writing poetry and prose, as well as painting.
Kholoud was chosen as a writer deserving support by the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), a Norwegian organization that links nearly 70 cities giving temporary shelter to authors facing persecution.
“When the helmet of fear is on your head, you cannot write anything openly.”
In 2011 Kraków, a city with a rich literary history and home to writers such as Joseph Conrad, Stanislaw Lem and Czeslaw Milosz, became the first ICORN member from Central and Eastern Europe.
The city of Kraków, the Villa Decius Association and the Kraków Festival Office have facilitated Kholoud’s residency.
“We try to be a voice of solidarity in the context of refugee phobia in Eastern Europe,” says Robert Piaskowski, programme director of the Kraków Festival Office.
“When the helmet of fear is on your head, you cannot write anything openly,” says Grzegorz Jankowicz, a journalist who is helping to promote Kholoud and put her in touch with fellow writers.
“It is interesting for me to work with her,” says Paweł Łyżwiński, Kholoud’s helper at Villa Decius. “Her poetry and her attitude to life are very spiritual; different from our rational way of looking at the world.”
Kholoud comes from the village of Al Mjemr near the predominantly Druze city of Sweida in southwestern Syria.
As a child, she had a painful lesson about the fragility of life and our inability to prevent suffering.