“Silence Like a Cancer Grows”

Paul Simon, in the song, “Sound of Silence”, 1964.

Jeffrey here. Today Joey yields the floor.

As always, I speak for myself, not for Human RIghts First. My words and views are my own.

Rohingya fleeing genocide in Myanmar, circa 2017. What slurs were they called in the Burmese language?

When the government of South Vietnam collapsed, I wrote to my member of Congress to complain that the U.S. was wrong to accept some refugees. I wanted us to accept all of them. (We didn’t.)

That was nearly fifty years ago.

In May 2018, on our Ride from Indiana to Louisiana, you met one of those refugees.

Trang is a proud American. He told me in his Alabama accent about his escape from Vietnam, and some of what he and his family suffered on the South China Sea.

Trang didn’t say what names he was called. Nor what the pirates called the people they murdered, what they called the women they raped, what they called the people they threw into the sea.

We can be confident that they weren’t called the n-name.

Ditto for the Ukrainians murdered by Russian invaders in the ongoing iteration of utter disregard for human rights.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Armenians mass-murdered by the Ottomans. Kurds mass-murdered in Iraq. Millions murdered in Ukraine by the Soviets. Millions of Jews murdered throughout Europe by the Germans and their allies. Tens of millions murdered in China at the hands of Japan and then under communist rule. Masses murdered in Burundi. In Cambodia. Five million murdered in Congo. Liberia. Haiti. Colombia. Myanmar. Tamils and Sinhalese murdered in Sri Lanka. Eritrea. Ethiopia. Somalia. Algeria.

They suffered as much as anyone can suffer. They died in the millions. And they died, as everyone must, one by one by one. The evil names they were called by persecutors and maimers and jailers and killers, were as evil as the n-name.

I have defended refugees—some of the ones who lived—from all these places, and more. Refugees familiar with slurs, each slur as bad as the others. I have been a small voice on their behalf when they face removal from our country.

With her poetry, Warsan Shire is a great voice for refugees.

Shire was born in Kenya in 1988 to Somali refugee parents. Her words capture the feelings evoked by 40 years of my clients’ testimony.

In ”Home”, Ms. Shire uses the n-name.

If ever I read this powerful poem aloud, I will say her words as she wrote them. I will not censor or bowdlerize her work. I will not silence her truth.

Because suffering is a cancer.

And when people suffer, silence makes that cancer grow.



by Warsan Shire

Warsan Shire

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

no one leaves home unless

when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you

breath bloody in their throats

the boy you went to school with

who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory

is holding a gun bigger than his body

you only leave home

when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet

hot blood in your belly

it’s not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet

sobbing as each mouthful of paper

made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms

under trains

beneath carriages

no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck

feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled

means something more than journey.

no one crawls under fences

no one wants to be beaten


no one chooses refugee camps

or strip searches where your

body is left aching

or prison,

because prison is safer

than a city of fire

and one prison guard

in the night

is better than a truckload

of men who look like your father

no one could take it

no one could stomach it

no one skin would be tough enough


go home blacks


dirty immigrants

asylum seekers

sucking our country dry

niggers with their hands out

they smell strange


messed up their country and now they want

to mess ours up

how do the words

the dirty looks

roll off your backs

maybe because the blow is softer

than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender

than fourteen men between

your legs

or the insults are easier

to swallow

than rubble

than bone

than your child body

in pieces.

i want to go home,

but home is the mouth of a shark

home is the barrel of the gun

and no one would leave home

unless home chased you to the shore

unless home told you

to quicken your legs

leave your clothes behind

crawl through the desert

wade through the oceans



be hunger


forget pride

your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear



run away from me now

i dont know what i’ve become

but i know that anywhere

is safer than here


Vietnamese refugees circa 1975. What slurs were they called in Vietnam? On the sea? In the USA?

4 thoughts on ““Silence Like a Cancer Grows”

  1. Oh Jeff, that was powerful and jarring and true. Thank you for your compassion and willingness to work tirelessly for a better world.


  2. One of your most memorable posts. And they are all moving and full of so much ti learn and see with fresh eyes. Wow. What some people have been through. We need to keep remembering this, be grateful for our lives, and help others all we can. Thanks for being a recording voice for all of us.


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