Monday, February 26th, 2018...3:58 amnguyetra

“Passing the Refugee Camp” – Naomi Shihab Nye

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Notice 10:

  1. 5 stanzas, free verse.
  2. The images of different types of fruits repeat throughout the poem: “fruit,” “peach,” “olive,” “oranges,” and “almonds.” There is a contrast between these fruits’ sweetness and refreshing nature (which reminds the readers of hope and life) and the horror in the refugee camp.
  3. The poem establishes a contrast between the olive color of the soldiers’ suits and the olive color of the trees: although the color stays the same, it represents different things. While the olive color of these soldiers’ suits means pain and suffering, the dusky gray-green color of the olive trees gives the refugees love and comfort.
  4. The refugees exist in relation with one another: the father-the son(s), the widow-her daughter, the man-his brother, a man – a woman.
  5. The soldiers are portrayed as a separate unit from the people, referred to as “they.”
  6. The poet appears only once with the personal pronoun “I.” In this poem, the poet is as an observer/storyteller who sees everything that happens in the refugee camp, describes these incidents to the reader, and ponders upon them.
  7. The personification of the olive’s shadow, which “won’t leave a single one of its people alone…follows them inside their own shadows…loves them when they think there is no more loving.”
  8. The repetition and the personification of the word “dream” in the final stanza (“His dream crosses the slim water.”)
  9. Two questions that are raised by the poets to two distinct groups – the soldiers and the refugees: “How can they know this and forget so many other things?” and “What happens to the man and dream who get separated?”
  10. The different stages of the “dream” in the final stanza: the dream that is “separated” from the man, the dream in which some people “place their whole bodies inside,” and the dream from which a woman steps out to hold “fresh almonds” to “any open mouth.”


  • Title: Passing the Refugee Camp.

The title suggests that the author is a passerby who observes and reflects on the events in a refugee camp, which locates in Palestine (as the italicized line “for Palestine” in the final stanza suggested.) It is worth noticing that the author can paint a vivid and detailed picture of this camp as well as know the stories of its people. This is contrasting to the notion that she is someone who is just “passing” through the camp.

  • Occasion:

I believe the occasion for this poem is to portray the lives of the refugees in the camp amidst all the horrors and oppression that the soldiers place on them. The poem illustrates a contrast between the soldiers’ heartlessness and the people’s hope, love, and dreams. I think Naomi wrote this poem to show that in a terrifying camp where people get beaten up and tortured every day, there is still humanity (demonstrated through the image of a woman who shares “fresh almonds” to anyone who needs them.)

  • Break:

I think there are two breaks in this poem. The first break is at the end of the first stanza. The image “the pit of this peach / breaks a hundred teeth” is very strong and creates a separation between the first stanza, which describes vaguely who is “in there” (the refugee camp), and the second and third stanza, which tell the daily stories of the refugees. This sentence also hints at the violence that will take place in the second and third stanza.

The second break is the question: “How can they know this and forget so many other things?” at the end of the fourth stanza. It directly shows the author’s attitude towards the ignorance of the soldiers, who laugh at the refugees’ bitter pains while wolfing down sweet oranges.


  • I really liked this poem. I think that the breaks that you have here would make sense, but I also think that there is a break before either “Some people place their whole bodies” or “The olive’s dusky gray-green shadow” because Nye stops talking about the different aspects of the poem, and rather changes to thoughts about the aspects of the camp that you cannot see. She’s talking about how the people within the camp are hiding and afraid and try to imagine themselves in any other situation. In addition, I think that the questions that Nye poses within the poem are very important that you highlighted because she asks them and then infers what the answers might be, while remaining hopeful throughout the poem.

  • I think your comparison of the olive color of the soldier’s shirt to the olive itself was very astute and something that I missed the first time reading this poem. Linking the solider to the olive, a dietary staple of the speaker’s home, emphasizes the differences between the soldier and home, but also of the similarities. The soldier is used in war but they are also viewed by some as protectors and guardians. The olive, in its own way, defends the home it represents. Or at least proudly shows its heritage in its very nature. The solider, in this way, is different from the olive in the sense that soldiers are mobile and adaptable, and choose what to do defend (although thinking more closely, this is not always true in the cases of drafts or other forced military operations). Essentially, the solider has choice about what they defend, whereas the olive simply IS. It cannot choose what to defend or represent, nor does it antagonize other things that are not from the same place.

  • I was personally really captivated by this poem because it connects something so simple to something profound. Like you mention, something that really struck me in this poem was the contrast between the people and the soldiers. A common theme that I’ve found in NSN’s poems is resisting changing one’s own culture and identity because of someone else. It’s evident that the speaker’s father is proud of who he is because he carried the tray with “high and balanced hands”, referring to a sense of confidence despite the circumstances.

  •   Professor Seiler
    March 5th, 2018 at 7:32 pm

    Trang–Clearly your post hit a nerve with our class! Well done. It strikes me in reading your post that this poem crystallizes so much of what we’ve been talking about with respect to Nye’s poetry: family/kinship/relationship, food, concrete details, human specificity. I wonder if you want to ask her some questions about these threads tomorrow?

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