Listen up on IDPD 2015!

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Access, Equity, and Human Rights Award Recipients  Photo: City of Toronto

On December 2nd 2015, I was honoured to be presented with the City of Toronto’s 2015 Access Award for Disability Issues for my work creating and leading Building Roads Together. It was an extra special honour to receive it on the eve of The International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), and just days before International Human Rights Day, when the UN will launch the “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always”campaign. My life’s work emerges from the nexus of rights, freedom, and mental health.

The theme for IDPD 2015, “Inclusion matters: access and empowerment for people of all abilities,” resonates strongly with the core principle and goal of Building Roads Together to increase inclusion of people living at the intersections of exclusion.

If you want to join us in increasing inclusion, listen to those of us who live at the intersections of exclusions. I mean really listen – without dismissing, diminishing, debating, defending. Hear our words and pause to consider them. Try to understand how our words express our unique contexts and experiences – our unique lives. Give our words space to live and breathe in a world where we are so often silenced, where our words are so often erased. Value the insight we have gained from our daily experiences. If you are committed to inclusion, start by including our words. That is the first step to including our lived experience, and including our lives.

These are the words I shared at the Access, Equity, and Human Rights Awards Ceremony:

“This award means so much to me, I’m speechless. Well, almost speechless. I do have a speech for you. The Access Award means so much to me for three key reasons.

First, Building Roads Together, the community-based peer walking and rolling group program I designed to promote inclusion and reduce mental health inequities, comes from my lived experience of trauma and recovery.

On July 31, 2009, my cherished friend and colleague Josh Fattal was taken hostage by the Iranian regime. My heart stopped. I needed movement to keep it beating, yet it felt impossible to move forward. We were captive with him, in a state of suspended animation, holding our breath, until he was freed. Movement was the only way out of our entrapment.

Josh told me, after he was freed, that one of the lessons he had learned from his hostage experience was, “Exercise is the key to life.” Yet I struggled even to walk during my recovery, because of my PTSD symptoms. This experience grew into Building Roads Together.

The second reason I so value this award is that building something valued by my peers, who share my lived experience of exclusion, loss of freedom, and mental health issues, means the world to me. I’ve now trained more than 40 people living in community housing in Regent Park, with City of Toronto Community Recreation grant funding. Thank you for that. Multiple groups and inspiring leaders have emerged from that training. These words of wisdom from a peer walking group leader express the essence of the program and inspired our name:

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, and other times they will follow you. It’s building roads together.”

I’m beyond moved that a growing number of people and organizations across the city and country want to be part of Building Roads. A team of professors in Japan even wants to collaborate to bring it to community housing there that is being revitalized.

Finally, recognition from the City of Toronto is more than I ever imagined possible. Of course I didn’t get here alone. I want to thank the following people and organizations for building this road with me:

 

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Intergenerational inspiration. My mother, nephew, and I. Photo: Ausma Malik, TDSB Trustee

 

 

 

 

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Dear imprisoned journalists, “We are with you” on World Press Freedom Day

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. I think of journalists, writers,…all those wrongfully imprisoned around the world. I think of their trauma, and their loved ones’ trauma. And I think of their courage. This year, Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian award-winning journalist, released on bail after 412 days of wrongful imprisonment in Egypt, is leading a rally in Vancouver. He is not fully free himself – on prolonged retrial as court sessions are postponed time and again, and having to check in at a police station daily – but he is fighting to free others still imprisoned.

“This day last year, I was a desperate prisoner clinging on any ray of hope in my dingy cell. Knowing supporters were fighting for me on the outside was another reason to continue and not give up.” ~ Mohamed Fahmy

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When you’ve experienced wrongful imprisonment, or the wrongful imprisonment of a loved one, you’re compelled to do whatever you can for others sharing that experience. Because you know how all consuming, haunting, and traumatizing it is. Because you know that every supportive action cuts through the trauma fog, making freedom possible.

My friend Josh Fattal was held hostage in Iran for two years and two months. I could not communicate with him during that time – his prison guards withheld my letters to him, and he often didn’t even have a pen to write with – but I could feel his captivity in my bones. And now we carry the captivity of others with us wherever we go.

“In prison, the world conspires to convince you that you are forgotten. The walls stare in silence. The guards look at you as if they’ve never seen you before—appalled that you’d ask for more toothpaste or another cup of tea. The place pretends to have no memory. When word from outside slipped through the cracks or when a hunger strike caused the authorities to hand me letters from home, the prison temporarily dissipated, wind was a message from mom, the sun a salutation from my brother. A guard’s face even reminded me of a childhood friend. The support from the outside kept the struggle going—the struggle to stay human, to be true to myself, to try to love even though my world was full of hate. Evin prison is tough. But Jason, we are with you. As protesters chanted outside of San Quentin Prison, we chant to you: “Inside, outside, we are all on the same side!” Iran’s foreign minister Zarif gave a speech at my university last week. Jason, there were people outside and inside talking about you.” ~ Josh Fattal

The Fahmy Foundation campaigns for Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief, at its first Free Press Rally. Jason has been held in Evin Prison for 284 days, much of it in solitary confinement, without access to a lawyer. His family tried to retain Masoud Shafii, the Iranian lawyer who represented Josh, but Iran’s Revolutionary Court continues to block him from doing his job. They’re punishing him for bravely fighting to free Josh, and his friends Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd, and punishing Jason and his family and friends in the process.

I ask you to support Jason and his family and friends on May 3. I ask you to support the other Fahmy Foundation campaigns featured in the Free Press Rally: Shawkan Zeid, photojournalist detained without charge in Egypt for almost two years; and Mohammed al-Ajami, a poet held in solitary confinement in Doha, Qatar’s Central Prison for almost two and a half years. I ask you to do whatever you can to shine a light on press freedom.

“As I continue to battle for my own exoneration, I am proud to work with notable Canadian friends, lawyers, and volunteers to remind world leaders that a free press is a fundamental core of the true democracy they promote.” ~ Mohamed Fahmy

Mohamed Fahmy, Josh Fattal, and I, along with other political prisoners and their family and friends, know what a difference your support can make.

“I guarantee that the journalists fighting to survive in solitary confinement will hear the noise we make for them, just like I did during my imprisonment. Support their cause and mine—the right to report freely and safely.” ~ Mohamed Fahmy

Join us on May 3, 11am outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, and online around the world.

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