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Syrian Girl Wins UK National Poetry Prize

OXFORD – Arriving in the UK only one year ago, a young Syrian refugee has made an achievement by winning a prestigious poetry competition for her poem about her lost homeland Syria.

“In Syria, all the time we were scared,” Amineh Abou Kerech, who won the 2017 Betjeman poetry prize for 10- to 13-year-olds, told The Guardian on Sunday, October 1.

“When I remember my Syria I feel so sad and I cry and start writing about her.”

Amineh does not remember the country very well. At the age of only 8, Amineh left Syria in 2012, one year after the eruption of the revolution.

She started writing poems during the four years her family spent in Egypt, but since moving to England last summer, with a new language to master and a new culture to mix with, she has been working very hard on her verses.

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Joining Oxford Spires, a multicultural academy in the east of the city where more than 30 languages are spoken, Amineh and her sister Ftoun joined a workshop led by the Iraqi poet Adnan Al-Sayegh.

This is where they met Scottish author Kate Clanchy, the school’s writer-in-residence since 2009, who has been nurturing Amineh and Ftoun’s talents at weekly classes.

“Some of my most amazing writers lost a language at an early age,” Clanchy said at the prizegiving, “in the sense that they arrive suddenly in England and are no longer able to tell stories and make themselves powerful in that way.”

“It can turn them in on themselves. But I also think they have a special capacity at that age to produce really unusual rhythms and sounds in English, which makes them into really interesting poets.”

This year’s judges, the poet Rachel Rooney and Observer cartoonist Chris Riddell (until recently, children’s laureate), agree that Amineh’s poem stood out from more than 2,000 entries, drawn from schools across the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

“I found it really moving,” says Rooney.

“It was passionate and complex. She was asking: ‘How can I do myself justice through a poem? How can I create a homeland on paper?’ And then she was actually doing it. Amazing.”

“It addresses a contemporary issue that’s been breaking all our hearts,” adds Riddell.

“It has a solemnity to it, but also the profound view that you get through a child’s eyes. It stands up as a poem, in any context.”

At the end of her poem, Amineh asks, “Can anyone teach me / how to make a homeland?”

However, she has consolations in her new home.

“I feel so happy here because I have a future and things won’t be scary anymore,” she tells me.

“Everything will be good,” she adds, “and we will always be in peace.”