Writing free: An Iraqi-Canadian on Surrey, B.C. offering a light of hope for artist refugees
'To me, freedom feels like more than a right — it's a privilege that I'm so lucky to have here in Canada'
What is freedom?
How do we redefine it?
These were some of the questions that were discussed when I was a panellist at an event held at the Vancouver Public Library during the 33rd Freedom to Read Week, a national event that aims to continuously inspire Canadians to embrace the intellectual freedom.
Among the panellists that I shared stage with were Surinder Bhogal, who talked about Surrey, B.C. becoming Canada's first International City of Refuge (ICRON), offering temporary sanctuary to persecuted writers and artists. For me, this hit home because I imagined myself being one of these persecuted writers back home in Iraq, living in a country where freedom does not exist.
The City of Surrey has partnered with Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Simon Fraser University, the Surrey Public Library and PEN Canada to provide a sanctuary space for a writer whose life is at risk due to their fight for freedom and justice. This project places Canada among the democratic countries that not only guarantee freedom for their own citizens, but also shed a light of hope for oppressed writers and artists in other parts of the world.
To me, freedom feels like more than a right — it's a privilege that I'm so lucky to have here in Canada. I know that many others don't have that kind of freedom.- Hasan Namir
To me, freedom feels like more than a right — it's a privilege that I'm so lucky to have here in Canada. I know that many others don't have that kind of freedom. I highlighted this knowledge in the beginning of my speech for the event:
"To Amirhossein Zolghadri, the gay Iranian man who chose freedom when Canada suspended his application for refugee status in order to prioritize Syrian refugees. After applying for resettlement in the US, his application was suspended because of Trump's 'Muslim Ban.' To the Iraqi soldiers, Btoo and Nayef, who were featured on the Ellen Degeneres show. To the many other Iranian and Syrian gay men and women, whose hopes and dreams have been crushed. To those that continue to fight for their love and for their voices to be heard. I stand with you because I, too, chose to have my voice heard."
I was born in Iraq, a country that was controlled by a dictator named Saddam Hussein. There was no such freedom. Anyone who spoke out against his regime would face death or something even more horrific. But what could be worse than death? The most brutal kind of torture: I've heard stories of rape, beheading and heinous acts. For many years, Saddam had stopped all types of exports from other countries. While many people might find bananas to be cheap and easy to get, when I was a young boy, bananas were banned from Iraq. They were not locally grown. When my father travelled to Jordan, he would smuggle bananas back across the border to surprise us at home. My mother wouldn't let me take any bananas to school because other children would see me eat it and wish they could have it, too. For me, it was a yellow dream — a fruit that simply represented the lack of freedom.
When we moved to Canada, it took me a while to adapt to an openminded group of people who were not only accepting of others' differences, but also embraced multiculturalism. It was a culture shock. As I became older, I started to cherish the love and acceptance Canadians have for all walks of life. I imagined myself being back in Iraq and how my life would have been different. I would not have been free to love who I wanted to love. I would have lived a life that was already set up for me by my father, grandfather and ancestors. Being a Canadian, I have that freedom to share my story and can stay authentic and true to myself. At the same time, I realize that around the world, there are far too many who do not have these fundamental rights.
This is why I appreciate what the City of Surrey is doing, shedding a light of hope as the freedom is fogged for many people in all parts of the world. If I still lived in Iraq, I could have been one of these writers, whose freedom would have been only a hopeless dream. It reminds me why I'm so thankful to be Canadian. That feeling alone sets me free.