Originally from Raqqa, Syria, Abdulrahman’s pen has cost him 10 years in prison. Arrested 4 times in Syria, and once in Libya; this was the price for writing, calling for freedom of expression, and his activism.
Publishing a critical analysis of the Assad regime’s handling of the pro-democracy protests that arose in Syria during the Arab Spring, Matar’s pen and voice resulted in constant harassment and surveillance from the ever-vigilant intelligence eye.
Back home, a director at a cultural center, Matar recounts when the unseen surveillance that permeates many lives in Syria became visible. Suddenly, security personnel were present every day at his workplace wanting an explanation for everything that happened; what did this visitor want and what programs were they hosting that day? But betrayal came from within. It became clear that a fellow director was feeding the intelligence service information. Soon after, Matar found himself summoned to often violent weekly interrogations.
After his 4th arrest, where he was subjected to severe torture, he knew he could not stay in Syria anymore. Fleeing to Istanbul, he made regular TV appearances as he tried to continue working as a journalist. During this time, his name was added to a blacklist compiled by ISIS, which exacerbated the threats against his life. Random strangers sent threats over Facebook: “We know everything about you, where you live, what you eat, where you go.”
In 2015, he left the refuge of Istanbul to make his way to Buffalo, New York, and then to Canada. When he declared he had no documentation at the Canadian border, hours of rigorous and detailed questioning started. Bloodshot eyes and sleepless, Abdulrahman almost gave up. He told his interpreter that he did not need to enter Canada, and to please end the interrogation. Sitting down with the clusters of families in the “Living room” a border agent held out a paper to sign, and without knowing what it was, he signed. Confused, strangers started congratulating him, explaining that he had just signed his landing papers. As he left the Canada Border Services Agency office, the winter sunset was approaching and under Canadian protection, he slept well for the first time in 15 years.
Now residing in north Toronto, Matar is the managing editor of the literary magazine Awraq, as well as the founder and director of the Syrian-Mediterranean Cultural Forum which focuses on introducing Arab writers and artists to the Canadian community. However, as a writer and journalist in exile, facing numerous employment and cultural barriers, he also has to work in factories to make ends meet. In 2021, he was the recipient of the Arts Commitment Award from the Happening Multicultural Festival for his continuous efforts to amplify stories of the Syrian diaspora through literature and events.
Arzu Yildiz leans back into her seat, taking a break from Ubering around Toronto, as she recounts her journey to Canada. As a teenager in Turkey, Yildiz valued her freedom and passion for boxing above all else.
Going to university seemed out of reach, but after unexpectedly achieving high scores in the entrance exams, she attended Istanbul Bilgi University, where she started her journey into journalism and truth-telling. She worked as a human-interest reporter for her university newspaper before switching to an independent documentary company and eventually landing a position at the Turkish national newspaper, Taraf.
Working late at the office, surrounded by the glowing lights of Anarka, she found herself wondering about the lives of those who lived there; who they were, what was important to them, and who protected them from being taken advantage of.
In our interview, she talked about the cost of exposing the truth. While working for Taraf, she covered stories about Turkish President Erdogan and his son Bilal “mysteriously” receiving millions of dollars in cash, as well as one very prominent story about the Turkish Intelligence Agency sending guns to armed groups in Syria. After her story about gun running to Syria broke, the government quickly noticed her work and retaliated by taking custody of her two kids.
Following the July 15th Turkish military attempt to topple President Erdogan’s government, Yildiz shared on Facebook a photo of the police arrests showing hundreds of civilians handcuffed and lying on the floor of a gymnasium with the caption “Torture is a crime against humanity.” That same night, the police issued a warrant for her arrest for spreading propaganda and ransacked her home looking for her. It was just by chance that she had stayed with her parents that night and escaped being one of the people on the same gym floor.
Her first instinct was to challenge the police in court but with the increased persecution of journalists after the coup attempt, she was forced to go into hiding. She made the heart-wrenching decision to leave her children with her parents and, hopefully, allow them to be free without her. For 5 months she lived an underground life and used a fake name to stay out of the police reach. But living in fear, unable to go outside, was not a way to live; it was not freedom.
With the help of smugglers, she escaped to neighboring Greece before embarking on the long journey to Paris, the US, and finally to Canada.
In between driving Uber and spending time with her kids, she still has a passion for exposing the truth. She writes for various news outlets in Canada and is outspoken about the difficulties of exiled journalists in continuing their careers after seeking asylum. Now a Canadian citizen, she prides herself on identifying as a refugee. “It makes me more comfortable, and it gives me more freedom… now more people try to cross the border in bad condition, and I can identify with their pain.”
Her book containing the stories of 15 exiled journalists is set to come out in June 2023.
Lateef Johar Baloch
Nestled in the southwestern region of Pakistan, Balochistan is plentiful in gas, petroleum, brutality, and armed conflict. Since 2006, a renewed battle for independence has been waging between Baloch separatists and the government of Pakistan. Clashing parties demanded control of the province’s natural and political autonomy with little regard for civilians.
This was home to Lateef Johar Baloch. Growing up in the small village of Kolwa in the Awaran district of Balochistan before moving to Nadgo for his middle and high school studies. Lateef recounts seeing everything; domestic violence, drug trading, burning of houses, and killing of civilians.
He joined the Baloch Student Organization (BSO) in high school and started his long journey of advocacy and activist work. With the mission to raise awareness of the atrocities happening in Balochistan, the organization traveled to schools and colleges to inform and educate. Groups of 7-8 thousand people gathered in public squares to listen to their messages.
But the tide turned. Suddenly thousands of students, teachers, mothers, and fathers started going missing. In this complicated and ugly war, disappearances are not uncommon and often have tragic endings.
Then on March 18th, 2014, the president of the BSO, Zahid Baloch, disappeared. A month later, Lateef started his hunger strike in front of the Karachi Press Club, a strategic placement to lower the likelihood of Baloch ‘disappearing.’ He camped in a tent calling for the return of his mentor and friend while hoping to raise awareness to the plight of Balochistan.
For 46 days, Lateef sat there. Visits from friends, doctors, and even Dr. Abdul Malik Baloch, the Chief Minister of Balochistan, failed to convince Lateef to bring his hunger strike to an end. Only with assurances by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) that the group would raise the issue at the United Nations’ International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), did Lateef end the strike. By then, the story had been covered by the BBC, DAWN, and other news organizations. Protests in solidarity had taken place worldwide, from Vancouver and Seattle to Berlin; the word was spreading, and Lateef knew he had to flee. Going to Dubai, then Nepal, back to Dubai, and finally to Toronto, where he was granted asylum.
In our interview, Lateef remembers the newness of Canadian culture. The language, the norms, the slang, and more. He laughs as he recounts trying to buy a coffee from Tim Horton for the first time: “I was standing in line when I realized I had no idea what to say or ask for when I got to the front, so I just left.”
Now in his last year at UofT with a double major in Political Science and Equity and Solidarity, Lateef continues to advocate for those in Balochistan. He currently serves as a Founding Member and former Deputy Coordinator for the Human Rights Council of Balochistan. His heart stays in activism. His future objectives include working towards an educational and advocacy organization highlighting the humanitarian crisis in Balochistan and creating a platform for marginalized groups, including refugees, to fight for their rights and global protection.