Marina Nemat, the chair of PEN Canada’s Writers in Exile program, is the author of “Prisoner of Tehran.”
Dictators know that writers, journalists, filmmakers and bloggers are important but easy targets. Imprisoning, harassing, even killing them sends a strong message to the society: Shut up and play along, or else.
For the past seven years, PEN Canada’s Writers in Exile have met at Romero House for Refugees in Toronto once a month. PEN is a nonpartisan organization of writers that works with others to defend freedom of expression as a basic human right. It promotes literature, fights censorship, helps free persecuted writers from prison and assists writers living in exile.
Romero House has a bright yellow sign that reads “The Centre.” In its storefront-like window on Toronto’s busy Bloor Street, there are flower pots overflowing with greenery on a bookshelf. Inside, one can relax on comfy couches and chairs. Strangers smile. Many of them don’t speak English; they are newcomers to Canada from various countries. They seem shy and friendly at the same time. Lots of holas, salaams and hellos. I nod and smile back.
We call ourselves “The Supper Club,” because our meetings take the form of potluck dinners (with dishes ranging from Ethiopian flatbread to samosas). Breaking bread together matters. Community matters. Belonging matters.
It’s time for our annual holiday dinner. Ilamaran Nagarasa walks in. We embrace. His wife and 10-year-old daughter, a bright-eyed, intelligent girl with a love for poetry, were recently accepted as permanent Canadian residents. They arrived here about a year ago. Maran, as we call him, arrived in British Columbia in 2009, in a ship packed with 75 other Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka.
The Canadian government of the time, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, called these desperate men “terrorists” and put them in detention. But Maran was the director and owner of Motivation Media, one of the few independent and multi-platform news sources in Sri Lanka. His reports were used not only by BBC but also by various human rights groups. His independence and his information about human rights abuses made him a target of Sri Lankan paramilitaries. Fearing for his life, Maran had to flee, leaving his family behind.
Maran was imprisoned upon arrival in Canada and then placed under house arrest. He underwent numerous security reviews. He was finally accepted as a refugee in May 2013, four years after his arrival in Canada. It took another three years of work to reunite him with his family.
Despite all this, Maran’s story ended well. The family are now together. They are safe. They have hope. Maran has been working. His daughter is going to school, and is happy and full of promise. Canada finally gave them a new beginning.
Gezahegn Mekonnen Demissie is a writer, journalist and filmmaker. I ask him if his family has arrived in Canada. “Not yet,” he says. Family reunification can take years; he’s been in Toronto for two. He was forced to leave his country, Ethiopia, because he was threatened by the dictatorial government there. He had created two magazines that were shut down. During his stay in Canada, he has produced documentaries and published a monthly Ethiopian newspaper in English, Amharic and Oromo. But his ordeal won’t really be over until his family can join him.
When Bilal Ogutcu, a Turkish journalist, walks in, we applaud and rise. His family recently arrived in Canada. His bright smile says it all. I realize I’ve never seen him smile before. The mood of our group turns festive and upbeat. Bilal had been a journalist in Turkey for 20 years until he lost his job under the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Many of his colleagues are in jail. Soon after he escaped Turkey, the police raided his house. He is accused of protesting against the Turkish government and criticizing it on social media. With his family here, he can now begin a new life.
At the Exiles Supper Club, we have members from Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Columbia, Venezuela and Turkey, among others. Once a month, we gather at the center, share food and talk. We always introduce ourselves first and tell a little bit of our stories. Sometimes we cry. The tears remind us of the cost of standing up for democracy in dictatorships. Many of us have lost friends and loved ones. Many of us have friends who are in jail as prisoners of conscience.
I tell the Supper Club members that my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been acting up, even though it was in remission for a while. I have been experiencing flashbacks and anxiety. PTSD has no cure; it can subside, but it reawakens periodically. About twice a week, I give talks at high schools, universities and conferences about my experiences as a prisoner of conscience in Iran.
I was 16 when I was arrested. I was labeled an enemy of God because I was an outspoken critic of the government in my high school. I was tortured and raped, and I listened to gunshots as my teenage friends were executed. Many of them are buried in mass graves. In September 2017, I spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum in New York. I told the audience that one day I would go back home to Iran. I promised that I would find every single mass grave in that country – and there are many. I would walk on my knees, and I would unearth every one of them. I would dig the dirt with my own bare hands, and I would make sure that those young women and men are remembered.
At the Supper Club, there are many like me. We have chosen to be active witnesses to the crimes against humanity that dictators commit and then try to hide. Not on our watch. Silence only empowers the perpetrators.