Lemn Sissay: His heart in Manchester, his soul in Africa

EVENT: Sir Peter with poet Lemn Sissay; Retrak’s first Patron

I first met Lemn in his capacity as Chancellor of Manchester University. As an honorary professor, I was delighted to be introduced to him. I had been struck by his Desert Island Discs recording for Radio 4 and knew he was someone I would like to work with. Our first meeting coincided with a graduation ceremony; a busy day for Lemn, with crowds of proud students and parents congregating, but he had found the time to see me as if I was the only one in his diary that day.

I had asked to meet him to talk about our small charity with a big vision. I am now well versed in explaining Retrak’s mission though I was delighted he had already made the effort to find out a lot about us. I was also moved by his great humanity, his warmth and his passion.

Lemn’s story is well known; born of an Ethiopian mother who had come to the UK as a refugee, he was taken from his mother and given to foster parents who later put him into the care of the local authority. There are so many links in his story to the work of Retrak: his Ethiopian heritage, a country Retrak works in to rescue street children and to strengthen vulnerable families; his separation from his mother and rejection by his foster parents; his difficult time in the care system and the feeling, like so many children on the street experience, that he was an inconvenience. And then the realisation of his enormous potential as a poet. We are joined by the fact that his heart is in Manchester and his soul is in Africa – I feel the same.

When I asked Lemn if he would be a patron of Retrak he immediately said yes. Lemn will support the work of Retrak and help us to speak up for children living on the street. He will support our core belief that children belong in safe caring families not in institutions. He will inspire our staff through the power of his poetry.

Most of all, Lemn will be an incredible role model for our children as we encourage them in his own words to ‘reach for the stars’.

Lemn’s poetry expresses so much of the bewilderment and hurt of the separated child in a way that only someone who has had his experience can explain. It contains so much hope, especially through his expression of the power and beauty of nature. We hear his story and the range of emotions he has had to deal with, how he has had to overcome potential resentment and anger and yet is so full of joy and laughter and optimism.

Lemn’s is one story, but every separated child living on the street faces the similar challenge of overcoming rejection, abandonment and isolation in order to realise their potential. As Lemn says: he wants to be characterised not by his scars but by his ability to heal. As patron of Retrak, this powerful example will be shared with young people whose emotional scars are in desperate need of healing. Sir Peter Fahy