PEN Canada’s Writers in Exile organized a cultural event, the first in a series of activities aimed at sharing the stories of exiled writers and refugees in Canada through poetry. The literary event titled “Voices of Freedom” was held on Sunday, June 12th, in Toronto with the participation of a number of Canadian writers and journalists, Writers in Exile refugees living in Canada, Grace Westcott, President of PEN Canada, and Brendan de Caires, the Executive Director. The event was presented and moderated by Canadian writer Keith Leckie.
The event featured writers from Colombia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. These journalists, novelists, poets and human rights activists are survivors of repressive regimes who fled to Canada. While their jobs in Canada have led them to new livelihoods, they continue to write to remain connected to their purpose and passion. Their short stories and poems are filled with haunting memories and longing for their homeland tempered by the promise of a better life in Canada, as well as stories of compromises made, reconciliation, and the hope and love they hang on to that keeps them going.
The event was dedicated to the memory of Aaron Berhane, the former Chair of PEN’s Writers in Exile group, who passed away last year from Covid19 at the age of 52. He was the publisher of the first independent newspaper in Eritrea and was forced to flee his country after the government cracked down on the media, arresting several journalists and editors who were never seen again. To honor the memory of her late father, Aaron’s daughter, Freweini Berhane, read a passage from his soon to be published memoir. Freweini, who fled Eritrea at the age of 16, was reunited with her father in Canada in 2010, graduated from the University of Toronto with a double major in Human Biology and Health Studies, and later obtained a Regulatory Affairs certification from Algonquin College.
All of the writers participating in this event took turns reading stories and poems inspired by their experiences in life in their countries of origin, their struggle for freedom, and the challenges of living in exile. There were stories of escaping death, of arrest, of living in camps. The Syrian ordeal was present in this event, through the story of the Iranian writer Amir Yazdanbad, and in the poems of the Syrian poet Abdulrahman Matar who read one of his poems in Arabic and in English. His poem deals with the differences between the poet’s relationships with his original homeland where there is dictatorship, injustice, death and destruction, and his new homeland which provides him with protection, and protects his rights to freedom and to live in safety.
Abdulrahman Matar told SYRIAWISE “This evening’s event was an important cultural experience for refugee writers. It is the first time that an evening of our own as writers in exile has been organized by PEN Canada specifically for us. The Canadian writers’ and journalists’ interaction with us is greatly appreciated, and this event, which will be repeated later, was their initiative. It was also an opportunity for us to get to know more writers and journalists and share with them our exile writings. The beautiful thing is that Syria was present, just as the issue of freedom in general, and the issue of freedom of expression, were also strongly present.”
Since his arrival in Canada, Onder Deligoz has completed the 2018 PEN Canada-Humber College Scholarship Program and the 2019 Diaspora Dialogues Longterm Mentorship Program. He has authored a novel titled “Love After You Have Gone” in both English and Turkish.
Some additional participants were Gezahegn Mekonnen Demissie, Ethiopian writer, journalist, filmmaker, and current Chairman of the Writers in Exile group of PEN Canada, and Pedro A. Restrepo, writer, and journalist, interpreter, and human rights activist originally from Colombia.