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  • I was 10 years old when I learned what the word "genocide" meant.

  • It was 2003,

  • and my people were being brutally attacked because of their race --

  • hundreds of thousands murdered,

  • millions displaced,

  • a nation torn apart at the hands of its own government.

  • My mother and father immediately began speaking out against the crisis.

  • I didn't really understand it,

  • except for the fact that it was destroying my parents.

  • One day, I walked in on my mother crying,

  • and I asked her why we are burying so many people.

  • I don't remember the words that she chose

  • to describe genocide to her 10-year-old daughter,

  • but I remember the feeling.

  • We felt completely alone,

  • as if no one could hear us,

  • as if we were essentially invisible.

  • This is when I wrote my first poem about Darfur.

  • I wrote poetry to convince people to hear and see us,

  • and that's how I learned the thing that changed me.

  • It's easy to be seen.

  • I mean, look at me -- I'm a young African woman with a scarf around my head,

  • an American accent on my tongue

  • and a story that makes even the most brutal of Monday mornings seem inviting.

  • But it's hard to convince people that they deserve to be seen.

  • I learned this in my high school classroom one day,

  • when my teacher asked me to give a presentation about Darfur.

  • I was setting up the projector when a classmate of mine said,

  • "Why do you have to talk about this?

  • Can't you think about us and how it will make us feel?"

  • (Laughter)

  • My 14-year-old self didn't know what to say to her,

  • or how to explain the pain that I felt in that moment,

  • and in every moment that we were forced not to talk about "this."

  • Her words took me back to the days and nights on the ground in Darfur,

  • where we were forced to remain silent;

  • where we didn't speak over morning tea

  • because the warplanes overhead would swallow any and all noise;

  • back to the days when we were told

  • not only that we don't deserve to be heard

  • but that we do not have a right to exist.

  • And this is where the magic happened,

  • in that classroom when all the students started taking their seats

  • and I began to speak,

  • despite this renewed feeling that I didn't deserve to be there,

  • that I didn't belong there

  • or have a right to break the silence.

  • As I talked,

  • and my classmates listened,

  • the fear ebbed away.

  • My mind became calm,

  • and I felt safe.

  • It was the sound of our grieving,

  • the feel of their arms around me,

  • the steady walls that held us together.

  • It felt nothing like a vacuum.

  • I choose poetry because it's so visceral.

  • When someone is standing in front of you, mind, body and soul,

  • saying "Witness me,"

  • it's impossible not to become keenly aware of your own humanity.

  • This changed everything for me.

  • It gave me courage.

  • Every day I experience the power of witness,

  • and because of that, I am whole.

  • And so now I ask:

  • Will you witness me?

  • They hand me the microphone

  • as my shoulders sink under the weight of this stress.

  • The woman says,

  • "The one millionth refugee just left South Sudan.

  • Can you comment?"

  • I feel my feet rock back and forth on the heels my mother bought,

  • begging the question:

  • Do we stay, or is it safer to choose flight?

  • My mind echoes the numbers:

  • one million gone,

  • two million displaced,

  • 400,000 dead in Darfur.

  • And this lump takes over my throat,

  • as if each of those bodies just found a grave

  • right here in my esophagus.

  • Our once country,

  • all north and south and east and west,

  • so restless the Nile couldn't hold us together,

  • and you ask me to summarize.

  • They talk about the numbers as if this isn't still happening,

  • as if 500,000 didn't just die in Syria,

  • as if 3,000 aren't still making their final stand

  • at the bottom of the Mediterranean,

  • as if there aren't entire volumes full of fact sheets about our genocides,

  • and now they want me to write one.

  • Fact:

  • we never talked over breakfast,

  • because the warplanes would swallow our voices.

  • Fact:

  • my grandfather didn't want to leave home,

  • so he died in a war zone.

  • Fact:

  • a burning bush without God is just a fire.

  • I measure the distance between what I know

  • and what is safe to say on a microphone.

  • Do I talk about sorrow? Displacement?

  • Do I mention the violence,

  • how it's never as simple as what you see on TV,

  • how there are weeks' worth of fear before the camera is on?

  • Do I tell her about our bodies,

  • how they are 60 percent water,

  • but we still burn like driftwood,

  • making fuel of our sacrifice?

  • Do I tell her the men died first, mothers forced to watch the slaughter?

  • That they came for our children,

  • scattering them across the continent until our homes sank?

  • That even castles sink at the bite of the bomb?

  • Do I talk about the elderly,

  • our heroes,

  • too weak to run, too expensive to shoot,

  • how they would march them,

  • hands raised, rifles at their backs,

  • into the fire?

  • How their walking sticks kept the flames alive?

  • It feels too harsh for a bundle of wires and an audience to swallow.

  • Too relentless,

  • like the valley that filled with the putrid smoke of our deaths.

  • Is it better in verse?

  • Can a stanza become a burial shroud?

  • Will it sting less if I say it softly?

  • If you don't see me cry, will you listen better?

  • Will the pain leave when the microphone does?

  • Why does every word feel as if I'm saying my last?

  • Thirty seconds for the sound bite,

  • and now three minutes for the poem.

  • My tongue goes dry the same way we died,

  • becoming ash, having never been coal.

  • I feel my left leg go numb,

  • and I realize that I locked my knees,

  • bracing for impact.

  • I never wear shoes I can't run in.

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

  • So, I wanted to leave on a positive note,

  • because that's the paradox that this life has been:

  • in the places where I learned to cry the most,

  • I also learned how to smile after.

  • So, here goes.

  • "You Have a Big Imagination

  • or

  • 400,000 Ways to Cry."

  • For Zeinab.

  • I am a sad girl,

  • but my face makes other plans,

  • focusing energy on this smile, so as not to waste it on pain.

  • The first thing they took was my sleep,

  • eyes heavy but wide open,

  • thinking maybe I missed something,

  • maybe the cavalry is still coming.

  • They didn't come,

  • so I bought bigger pillows.

  • (Laughter)

  • My grandmother could cure anything

  • by talking the life out of it.

  • And she said that I could make a thief in a silo laugh

  • in the middle of our raging war.

  • War makes a broken marriage bed out of sorrow.

  • You want nothing more than to disappear,

  • but your heart can't salvage enough remnants to leave.

  • But joy --

  • joy is the armor we carried across the borders of our broken homeland.

  • A hasty mix of stories and faces

  • that lasts long after the flavor is gone.

  • A muscle memory that overcomes even the most bitter of times,

  • my memory is spotted with days of laughing until I cried,

  • or crying until I laughed.

  • Laughter and tears are both involuntary human reactions,

  • testaments to our capacity for expression.

  • So allow me to express

  • that if I make you laugh,