Listen up on IDPD 2015!

AEHR Award Recipients 2015 cropped

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

FF Rally Posters on wall

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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Well on My Way: Transforming a hike to captivity into a walk to freedom ~ Farah N. Mawani

“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

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Josh on our hike together in Gordon’s Bay, Western Cape, South Africa
Photo: Farah N. Mawani

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.

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Shadows of me walking on the beach with my brother and
nephew shortly after Josh’s release. Photo: Farah N. Mawani

NOTE: Shane, Josh, and Sarah’s book, A Sliver of Light, will be released on March 18, 2014. Preorder it here:

Freedom Season: The Time Is Right to Free Tarek Loubani and John Greyson

DAVE CHIDLEY / THE CANADIAN PRESS

DAVE CHIDLEY / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Re-posted from The Huffington Post

The time is always right to do what is right.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

This time of year has become Freedom Season for me. On September 21, 2011, my precious friends Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, were freed after being held hostage by the Iranian regime for 2 years and 2 months. On September 14, 2010, my other friend Sarah Shourd, was freed after 410 days in solitary confinement in the same Iranian prison. I will never forget those days. Along with all their loved ones, I could not be free until they were free.

When Sarah was freed, the sky grew larger, and I imagined how immense it would grow, when Shane and Josh joined us in the free world. Now that Josh and Shane are free, I am able to feel the growth of the world around me, with news of every political prisoner freed. On September 14, 2012, Jason Puracal, the brother of my friend Janis, was freed from Nicaragua, on September 18, 2013, Nasrin Sotoudeh, human rights defender extraordinaire, was freed from Evin Prison, Iran, and on September 23, 2013, Hamid-Ghassemi Shall, husband of my friend Antonella, was freed after more than 5 years imprisoned in Iran. The joy of those hard-won battles for freedom, by people around the world, is resounding. The sky expands, creating more air for my lungs, more space to fly.

Hearing the first words from Tarek Loubani, and John Greyson, two Canadians wrongfully detained in Egypt for 1.5 months, telling the story of their arrest, torture, and abuse, clouds that sky.

…we were: arrested, searched, caged, questioned, interrogated, videotaped with a ‘Syrian terrorist,’ slapped, beaten, ridiculed, hot-boxed, refused phone calls, stripped, shaved bald, accused of being foreign mercenaries…They screamed ‘Canadian’ as they kicked and hit us. John had a precisely etched bootprint bruise on his back for a week.

Imagine the horror and heartbreak of hearing that from your brother, son, friend? John’s sister Cecilia responded, in a statement, with “Given John and Tarek’s horrendous experiences from the day of their arrest until now, we have absolutely no faith that they will receive justice at the hands of the Egyptian legal system.”

Friends, colleagues, and supporters of theirs are flooding social media sites with their heartbroken and shocked responses, and the inboxes of Foreign Minister John Baird, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with calls for them to step up the pressure for Egyptian authorities to free Tarek and John.

Our shock deepened when rather than answering to their disturbing first account of their experience, and the shock expressed by people around the world, an Egyptian prosecutor ordered them detained for another 45 days, and Egypt’s Foreign Ministry confirmed charges of “participating in an illegal demonstration,” and suggested impending charges of espionage. With not even one phone call to their families to date. What reason do Egyptian authorities have for denying them and their families that basic humanity? Their basic human rights?

Cecilia Greyson spoke to CTV News on behalf of family members, “To have the detainment extended for another 45 days is truly awful for all of us.” I am sure that is an understatement of what their families are experiencing. I imagine that, like we had to, they’re checking their emotions in order to focus their energy on doing everything in their power, every moment of every day, to end their surreal nightmare.

Tarek and John are humanitarians, who have devoted their lives to improving the lives of people around the world. Tarek was “trying to save lives” in response to calls for a doctor at the protest, during their unplanned stay in Cairo. They were only there because they were unable to cross the border into Gaza, where they planned to work on a partnership project between Western University in London, Ontario, and al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza.

Dr. Fahim Ali, a colleague of Tarek, feels compelled to share his experience with Tarek:

I travelled with Tarek and 15 other medical professionals to Gaza last year to help teach a course in cardiac resuscitation. Tarek has only been practicing medicine for about 6 years. In that time he has helped develop an emergency residency program in Gaza, helped overhaul their emergency system, and taken a variety of other specialists to and from Gaza to develop and help advance medical care for the 1.8 million residents of Gaza who are under siege there. Most of this work is funded by Tarek himself. Tarek is no ordinary person. The fact that he is in a prison on Egypt without reason is not only an injustice it is a travesty.”

Though Tarek knew he faced risks going to a region in conflict, his colleague Dr. Gary Joubert highlights, “It’s always been important for Palestinian-born Loubani to give back to his homeland.”

As someone who takes risks to give back to my homeland, Kenya, I can relate to that. As Tarek’s father, Dr. Mahmoud Loubani asserts, rather than punish them, “If the Egyptian authorities…know about their mission, they should reward them and be proud of them.”

Both Tarek and John are cherished by their families, friends, colleagues, and continue to inspire them while held captive in deplorable conditions, silenced, and denied due process. Every supportive action you take contributes to FREEDOM for Tarek and John, buoys their spirits, and keeps their loved ones going. Just as every action supporters took for Josh, Shane, and Sarah were beacons of hope for them, myself, and all their loved ones. So please go to tarekandjohn.com for a list of actions you can take to reach out, hug them, and pull them home.

Fight for Freedom – The Ismaili Canada

Our founder, Farah Mawani, was featured in The Ismaili Canada, the publication of the Ismaili Council for Canada, representing Shia Ismaili Muslims in Canada.

Download PDF: Fight for Freedom | The Ismaili Canada, July 2012