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:

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Peer Support Workshops

group3Have you ever wondered how a peer support group could help you, your community, your clients/members, or organization cope with transitions, health/mental health issues, or other shared challenges? Or are you already planning or engaged in a peer support group?

Join our Founder, Farah Mawani, and the Self-Help Resource Centre at our upcoming interactive workshops at the Centre for Social Innovation – Regent Park, 585 Dundas St. E.! We have designed them for you to take individually or as a series. Register for both workshops and get a discount! Individual workshop rates are $50/person, and a package of two workshops costs $80/person.

Peer Support 101: March 22, 2013, 1-4pm.Learn about peer support groups, their principles, and distinction from professionally-led groups; the impact of peer support on health and well-being; the process of starting a peer support group; the common stages peer support groups go through; and the benefits and challenges faced by peer support groups. $50/person

Peer Support Groups: Challenges and Opportunities: April 26, 2013, 1-4pm. We will share tools to help you address common challenges faced by peer support groups, and make the most of opportunities offered by peer support groups. We will cover setting boundaries and guidelines, listening, non-violent communication, and conflict resolution. $50/person

Please contact Farah Mawani, for more information and to register.

Let us know if you are interested in attending our other peer support workshops, co-hosted by the Self-Help Resource Centre or having workshops tailored to the needs of your peer support group, colleagues, or organization.

SPARKS TALKS WEBINAR: Inspire Action for Change: Social Media for Social Good

SPARKS TALKS WEBINAR

Please join our webinar hosted by the Girls Action Foundation, part of their Sparks Talks Webinar Series.

Register here and RSVP and invite your friends on Facebook.

Follow @_GirlsAction, @FarahwayGlobal, and @farah_way on Twitter for the latest webinar buzz.

During this webinar, Farah will share advice for inspiring action for social change based on her intensive experience with global human rights and mental health campaigns. Farah has applied her commitment to community engagement and social justice to a wide range of issues, from political prisoner campaigns, to mental health equity, to promoting and building capacity among peer support groups

Whether you are taking action in your local community or want to create change in the wider world, this webinar will inspire you to set your goals high and take practical steps to make them happen. Farah will share strategies for building the scope and level of engagement of supporters, within complex and sensitive sociopolitical contexts. She will highlight the importance of peaceful communication, and demonstrate the potential for amplifying impact by integrating social media with media, and community-based events.

ABOUT THE PRESENTER

Farah N. Mawani is a Visiting Scholar, Massey College. She has global teaching, research, and policy experience in social determinants of health, mental health, inequalities in health, and community-based research. She has national experience in roles including Senior Policy and Research Analyst, Mental Health Strategy, Mental Health Commission of Canada; Multicultural Mental Health Resource Centre Steering Committee member; Mental Health Reform and Policy research team, Centre for the Study of Gender, Social Inequities, and Mental Health; and National Coordinator for numerous national health research projects.

Farah recently founded Farahway Global, a non-profit organization, based at the Centre for Social Innovation, that engages the global public in action for human rights and mental health via social media integrated with community-based events. It builds on Farah’s experience co-founding and directing the social media and global public engagement components of Free the Hikers, which freed Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, held hostage in Iran for 2 years and 2 months.

ABOUT THE GIRLS ACTION FOUNDATION SPARKS TALKS WEBINAR SERIES

The SPARK TALKS webinar series features inspirational stories, advice and tools from ground-breaking women. Presentations are always followed by an interactive Question & Answer session. Direct from your computer, participate in FREE webinars on topics such as safe cosmetics; women in the arts; social, environmental and political activism; building communities and organizations; the law; and arts as a medium for social change.

ABOUT THE GIRLS ACTION FOUNDATION

Girls Action Foundation is a national charitable organization. We lead and seed girls’ programs across Canada. We build girls’ and young women’s skills and confidence and inspire action to change the world.

Through our innovative programs, research, and support to a network of over 300 partnering organizations and projects, Girls Action reaches over 60,000 girls and young women. We reach remote, marginalized and urban communities, including those in the North.

Register here

RSVP on Facebook

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

Welcome to Farahway Global!

Farahway Global is a non-profit organization that engages the global public in action for human rights and mental health. It was founded by Farah N. Mawani (@farah_way), co-founder of Free the Hikers. It builds on Farah’s experience directing the social media and public engagement components of Free the Hikers, which played a large role in freeing Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, held hostage in Iran for 2 years and 2 months.

In collaboration with the core campaign team, Farah developed a social media portfolio (Facebook, twitter, YouTube, community blog, etc.) closely integrated with the website, public event, media and diplomacy components of the campaign. She centrally organized global events for the campaign that peaked with 40 events around the world at the one year mark of captivity for Sarah, Shane and Josh. The global reach of the events grew exponentially through Farah’s creative use of social media to engage large numbers of people unable to participate in the events in-person. For example, at its peak, when Shane and Josh were released, the campaign Facebook page included 31 000 supporters. The number of YouTube views on the most popular campaign video reached 364 000.

Building global support within the incredibly complex and sensitive sociopolitical context of the Free the Hikers campaign was challenging on multiple levels. Farah applied her experience in leadership, community engagement and global social justice to carefully navigate the sensitive relationships. As a result, the campaign was successful at engaging and garnering the support of people around the world, including high-profile public figures and diverse members of the general public of all ages, through a sophisticated integration of website, media, social media, public statements and public events.

Farah has been interviewed about the campaign on CBC Radio’s As It Happens (during campaign and after release), CBC Radio News, CBC TV’s Connect with Mark Kelley, NBC’s The Today Show, NTN24 (upon release and after first seeing Shane and Josh). She has also been interviewed for articles about the campaign featured in The Atlantic. She has made presentations on the Campaign at McGill University, Montreal, QC and Rally, San Francisco, CA. She has also written about the campaign on the Huffington Post and Intent.com.

Farah’s expertise integrating social media and public engagement on a global scale is sought by organizations, businesses, political and advocacy campaigns, and leading publications in multiple sectors. Her expertise in global mental health is sought by organizations, policy makers, service providers, researchers and students. It is in increasing demand from organizations and professionals who need to enhance their understanding of trauma in order to better serve their clients.