High school students were encouraged to take action in fighting against injustices during a presentation by Dr. Monia Mazigh on Monday morning at Vanier Catholic Secondary School.
The standing-room-only crowd of 100-plus Grades 9 to 12 students and staff from Vanier and the Individual Learning Centre listened intently.
Mazigh spoke for about an hour on her family’s experience after her husband, Maher Arar, was forcibly deported to Syria. There, he was held and tortured for more than a year without ever being charged.
Mazigh was in Whitehorse for the Yukon Nonfiction Festival, where she had also shared her experience and spoke over the weekend.
Arar had been taken into custody in New York while travelling back to Canada from Tunisia.
Deported to Syria
Despite carrying his Canadian passport, he was deported to Syria (he is originally from Syria, but had immigrated to Canada when he was 17) after two weeks of being detained in the U.S. There, American officials had suspected him of being associated with Al Qaeda.
When he was taken into custody, Mazigh was still vacationing in Tunisia and waiting for her husband’s call to say he was back home in Montreal.
He had no lawyer, and all the family could determine at that time was that he was accused of being associated with Al Qaeda. There was no evidence.
“My life took a really, very sharp turn,” Mazigh said.
Shoved into the role of single mother to her young family, Mazigh was also faced with a “cloud overhead” and had to begin a campaign to get her husband home.
She highlighted the laws that began being put in place after 9/11 in the name of protection against terrorism, noting at that time many did not question such actions.
Mazigh began her work to get Arar home, not knowing how long it would take nor what the result might be.
She began by sharing the type of person he was, “humanizing his story”: that he came to Canada as a teenager, worked as an engineer and is a good father.
A letter-writing campaign to government officials followed and grew to include the likes of Amnesty International.
As Mazigh told the students during the presentation, it’s in writing such letters and bringing attention to injustices that “we are practising our civic rights.”
Eventually, in October 2003, Arar was released, with the Syrian government stating that he was “completely innocent”.
“He came back a changed man,” Mazigh said, recalling her husband’s description of feeling like he was in a grave.
Knowing there were other Canadians in similar situations, it was important to continue the fight after Arar was home.
While Canada prides itself on being a land of immigrants, she said, it has failed some citizens, particularly those from Muslim countries.
A three-year public inquiry into Arar’s case started in 2004 and resulted in a formal apology and settlement from the federal government in 2007.
Mazigh has since written Hope and Despair, a book about her family’s experience in 2008.
Two novels have also followed: Mirrors and Mirages, published in 2014; and Hope Has Two Daughters, earlier this year.
She also unsuccessfully ran for federal office for the NDP, and continues to make presentations about the experience and the impact of Islamophobia.
As she told the students Monday, Islamophobic laws resulted in her husband’s deportation and being held in Syria for a year.
“It’s a very old concept,” she said of Islamophobia, citing documents going back to the 1920s that define it.
She then cited an Angus Reid survey from this year. It showed that 47 per cent of Canadians support a ban on head scarves, while 51 per cent endorse surveillance of mosques.
It also shows 31 per cent support the restrictions U.S. President Donald Trump had put forward on travel into the U.S. from predominately Muslim-countries.
Mazigh also stressed the impact perceptions have. She emphasized that she doesn’t have any fewer rights than any other woman “except when it comes to perception.”
As Mazigh encouraged the students to take action, she gave them some practical advice on just how to do that, stating she was “so, so grateful you came today.”
Listening to those who have faced challenges is important. There’s also a number of groups students can get involved with that work toward social justice.
Mazigh also stressed the importance of speaking up when anyone sees injustice.