“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” ~ Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
One foot in front of the other. One step at a time. Step by step. Bit by bit. Mantras to move through difficult times. Mantras I’ve turned to during a prolonged trauma, and my ongoing recovery. Mantras I manifest by literally putting one foot in front of the other, taking one step at a time. By walking. Walking to manifest movement forward. Even if only one step at a time.
When my precious friend Josh Fattal was taken hostage by Iranian regime forces, while on a hiking vacation in beautiful Iraqi Kurdistan, my heart stopped. I needed movement to keep it beating. Movement in music, movement in action. During his captivity from 2009-2011, it felt impossible to move forward. We were captive with him, in a state of suspended animation, holding our collective breath, until he was freed. Movement was the only way out of our entrapment. Literally and figuratively. We moved our campaign forward with constant action – fingers typing, letter writing, phone call dialing, vigil planning, strategizing, Facebook posting, YouTube filming, call to action tweeting. Josh, Shane, and Sarah moved as much as possible in their cells, exercising for hours a day. Josh told me once, after he was freed, that one of the lessons he had learned from his hostage experience was, “Exercise is the key to life.”
While he was limited to running on the spot inside his dark cell, I walked outside for Josh, because he couldn’t. I felt him with me, remembering our walks together, around the world, just before he was captured. In Switzerland, we walked in between Geneva trams, with our 33 students, rushing from WHO headquarters to our classroom, to UNAIDs, and back to our hotel. In Bangalore, India, we walked through the vibrant city that never sleeps, and ducked into Cubbon park, reveling in the natural enclave, and the chaiwallah and samosawallah. In Changsha, China, we walked across Central South University campus, wound our way through street food vendors just outside, and across city streets to get to much-needed massages. He took my hand to walk across a busy street to catch a show. In Cape Town, South Africa, we walked through streets and parks to our classroom, and through Kirstenbosch Garden, and a Western Cape hiking trail, sharing our dreams for our futures.
Josh’s hike in Iraqi Kurdistan with his old friends Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd, eerily echoed our Western Cape hike, with one other friend/colleague. Three friends hiking through dry, mountainous terrain, in search of a stunning waterfall, and some peace and respite. I could imagine their hike so vividly. So vividly that I couldn’t shake the thought, “It could have been me. It could have happened to me.”
I visualized walking with him again when he returned – along rivers and in expansive, open fields. I walked along the Ottawa river, just behind my home, breathing in the sunsets and vistas, trying to dissolve my feelings of entrapment. I took photos of every step to share with Josh in freedom, hoping they could somehow replace a tiny fraction of the many moments he missed. Though I knew that nothing could. Even while thinking of him, seeking beautiful flora and fauna, connected me with where I was in those moments. Those moments that were mine.
I added words to my photos, in a blog post, to capture one special walk I went on for him on a Gulf island off the BC coast. I hoped it would somehow get to him in spirit, because the Iranian regime wasn’t giving any of my letters to him. Josh’s mother took a chance and without telling me, in case she wasn’t successful, sent it to him with one of her letters. It starts with:
“Josh, I keep trying to honour your request to appreciate my freedom. To notice and relish everything I sense – so that I can share it with you while you’re kept imprisoned, locked away from the world, unable to see your loved ones, feel the breeze, hear the birds, taste the rain. It’s hard to be fully present anywhere I am when my heart is with you. But these few days on Bowen Island I try to drink everything in with all my senses.” ~ Farah Mawani, Day 330: Bowen Island Hike ‘with’ Josh
The first time I saw Josh, after he was freed, he surprised me by recalling my post to me in vivid detail, as if he had walked the path with me. But during his captivity, and for a long time after he was freed, the prolonged and increasing threat to his life and well-being, took a greater and greater toll on me. Despite the solace I found in walking, I was often unable to get out the door – I struggled with utter exhaustion combined with anxiety about what could be just outside the door. As I write that, I have a flash of insight – Josh was captured while simply hiking with friends in a beautiful setting. And even after he was freed, the Iranian regime tried to instill fear in me by communicating that they were watching my every move. So it’s no wonder that even something as simple and necessary as walking could overwhelm me with fear.
For quite some time, one of the only things I could get to was the weekly psycho-educational group I was referred to. I felt compelled to honour my commitment to the group, despite the distance I had to travel, and found great relief and support in our shared struggles. One of our shared struggles was our difficulty exercising, even when we knew and experienced how beneficial it was. We searched for strategies to overcome our barriers to getting out the door.
As my recovery progressed I began to walk almost daily, seeking glimpses of nature in my Toronto urban environment. I searched for and photographed trees and gardens against urban backdrops. I sought new discoveries – new routes, new places and spaces – each new discovery, no matter how seemingly small, gave me hope for the future, gave me a desire for a future with positive possibilities around every corner. I went on a series of hikes with an old friend, in an old hometown, searching for multiple waterfalls all in one day.
I conceived an idea based on my experience of gaps in services/supports, and research evidence on the benefits of exercise and social support for mental health: walking peer support groups that would offer a combination of a commitment to groups, the benefits of emotional support, and the ease of walking, to reduce barriers to exercise. I designed Walking Peer Support Groups for Mental Health, a project, to train people living with mental health challenges and issues to start and lead walking peer support groups. The City of Toronto funded it tentatively for two years. The first year is under way.
When the City of Toronto funded it, and the Manager, Social Development there expressed great enthusiasm for the project, I was honoured by their recognition of the project’s contribution to city programs, and more importantly to the mental health of it’s residents. When my Self-Help Resource Centre (SHRC) colleagues at the time congratulated me, I replied: “The proposal is close to my heart, and took a lot of work. The work ahead to make it happen is the most exciting part.” It has been even more exciting and rewarding than I imagined. The enthusiasm of project partners is infectious and reinforces my vision and commitment. Houselink members, who I interviewed for a needs assessment, are passionate and articulate about the powerful, life-transforming benefits of their walking groups, and exercise as a whole. Houselink staff consistently contribute beyond their project commitments because they see the dramatic impact of exercise on their members. Members and staff are driven to spread those benefits to even more members.
The Regent Park Neighbourhood Initiative (RPNI) is eager to offer the benefits of walking peer support groups to residents of Regent Park going through the upheaval and transformation inherent in community revitalization. I envision them maintaining connection to their constantly changing home, by walking through their evolving neighbourhood together, and supporting each other. I’m a founding member of the Centre for Social Innovation – Regent Park, which I can see from my apartment window, so I am committed to building on my community’s strengths.
Walking Peer Support Groups for Mental Health has provided me with a remarkable opportunity to weave my past into my future. Walking group founders, leaders, and participants I interviewed for the project needs assessment embody key principles of peer support and manifest them as they walk. They shift leadership, give each other space, walk at their own pace, and support each other on and off their walking paths. They enable each other to carve their own paths within the context of their experiences and relationships.
“In an ideal situation, it’s not about showing people the path and then them following you. It’s walking along the path with them. Sometimes you will follow them, other times they will follow you. It’s building roads together.” ~ Key Informant, Needs Assessment
I look forward to continuing our steps towards building roads together. For me, it is part of my road to freedom.