By 8 a.m. most days, Mir Mahdavi is walking his customary 15-minute route from his home in western Kabul, greeting the same friendly faces and stopping in the same grocery store for cigarettes before arriving at the three-storey apartment building that houses Aftab (“The Sun”), the weekly newspaper of which he is founder and editor-in-chief. There he makes his way down the first-floor hall, past the offices of his 10 employees, before settling at his desk, which overlooks a busy street. On Monday mornings, when Aftab goes on sale, the local kiosks along the rock-strewn road outside are especially crowded. One week a typical headline might read: “The Death of Democracy.” On another: “Religion + Government = Despotism.” Aftab’s willingness to explore incendiary issues and write harsh criticisms of corrupt warlords and fundamentalist groups has earned it a large following, but also powerful enemies. In November 2001, two months after Aftab released its first issue, Mahdavi received a series of warnings and bribes proffered by police, fundamentalist groups and political parties; he was even offered a position in a ministry of his choosing so long as he desisted from his work. “Democracy is a big lie,” the officials told him. “The reforms are not going to happen. You need to slow down.” But Mahdavi was not deterred. “My voice was important. Lots of people were listening to my words, and when you feel that, you feel much better,” he says today. One evening a week Mahdavi would even open Aftab’s office to university students—often 75 or 80—who would sit on the floor to listen to him lecture on Islam, poetry and journalism.
Eight years later, Mahdavi is barely awake at 8 a.m. as he heads toward the bathroom in his three-bedroom Hamilton home and eases himself into a hot shower. He then dresses and prepares breakfast for his two daughters, 14 and six, and goes online to review the latest news out of Afghanistan. At nine, just as his wife and three-year-old son are waking, he drops the girls off at Sanford Avenue school, then parks his 2006 Dodge Caravan cab in a nearby Tim Hortons lot. As he waits for orders, he removes a stack of square papers held together by an elastic band from the front console. Each sheet contains a different English word on one side and its use in a sentence and translation in Farsi on the other. With the windows up, he reads each word aloud—“Vulnerable. Fury. Contemplate”—in what has become his de facto office. In the afternoon, still on shift, he searches for unfamiliar words in his copy of The Hamilton Spectator or reads from an assortment of Farsi texts he keeps tucked underneath his front seat.
With the exception of spending 2005 as a visiting lecturer on human rights and democracy in Afghanistan at George Brown College in Toronto and a year-long paid internship at the Spectator, Mahdavi’s seven years in Canada have been spent working in a sports equipment factory and as a pizza delivery man and taxi driver. “I feel like I’m killing myself here,” the 38-year-old Mahdavi says in a slight accent as he peers down into a cup of tea. “I think about my worth and what I’m going to do and how I’m going to get out—to get back to something that fits my knowledge. At home I felt like I was doing a useful job—something important for people or the future of my country. But anybody can drive a taxi.”
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We’re all familiar with the tales of émigré physicians or professors who arrive in Canada to find that their immediate future is delivering pizza or driving a cab. Among us, though, are also hundreds of journalists like Mahdavi, who has degrees in physics, journalism and Islamic studies and two years of experience managing Aftab in Kabul, stuck in low-skill, low-wage jobs. “The modern version of what used to be doctors coming to Canada and not finding work,” says Haroon Siddiqui, the Toronto Star’s editorial page editor emeritus, “is now the reality for journalists.” According to John Fraser, a journalist and master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, the state of the media is so dire “that even exiled journalists looking for work will find it hard to evoke empathy here.”
No one really knows how many foreign journalists are living in Canada, although the 2006 census indicated that one in 400 immigrants who came to Canada from 2001 to 2006 identified themselves as journalists, editors, writers or authors. And their numbers may not increase substantially in the immediate future; foreign-born journalists are not eligible for Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s federal skilled-worker category.
But what about those who are already here?
“Other than feeling safe and secure, I don’t feel good about any other aspect of my life,” Tesfaye Kumsa, a 45-year-old Ethiopian journalist, says despondently as he sips tea in a coffee shop near his home in south Scarborough, Ontario. He arrived in Toronto in 2002, and tried to launch a newspaper for the city’s Ethiopian community, focused largely on issues back home. But, like other foreign-born journalists with similar ambitions, he had difficulty attracting advertisers and was forced to shut down after only six months. Asked if he has since attempted to work in the Canadian media, he dismisses the suggestion. “You don’t have any fundamental human rights issues or problems related to that,” he says. “Journalists here are completely different. They’re more commercial and concerned with serving their employers. In Ethiopia our journalism saved lives.” He references an event in the mid-1990s, when as a senior editor at Urjii (“Star”), an independent biweekly newspaper in Addis Ababa, his team reported on a secret underground prison where the government was holding 108 political prisoners. Urjii’s report, he says, coming to life, alarmed the International Committee of the Red Cross, which registered the detainees, guaranteeing their safety. “Can you imagine what pleasure this gives you—you can see the fruits of your job right away.”
Although he was routinely arrested for his work—10 times in 10 years—the beatings and subsequent injuries never bothered him; he wears his wounds as if they are medals earned in battle. Kumsa says he never intended to leave his country, but had little choice after his 10th imprisonment in 1997 lasted almost four years and involved torture. “I feel like I’ve betrayed my people. I know they’re still suffering,” he says despairingly. “They relied on our independent media. It was their only voice.” Kumsa still tries to help his native community by researching human-rights abuses in Ethiopia for the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa website, but the guilt of not being closer to the reality still lingers.
Across town, I meet AbeerAl Askary, a 34-year-old Egyptian journalist who spent 13 years courageously reporting on issues such as abuse by state security officers within Egypt’s interior ministry. Her work, she says, made her apolice target and resulted inmore than 20 arrests. In police custody, Al Askary was often badly beaten; her nose is still crooked from breaks on two separate occasions. As she recounts these experiences, Al Askary’s passion for human rights in her native country is evident, and although she’s willing to write for Canadian publications, so far, they haven’t been willing to give her that opportunity.
Al Askary first visited Canada in November 2006 to receive an award from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. She recalls how the media honoured her as a “freedom fighter” and encouraged her to settle in Canada, which “made me feel that if I stayed everything would turn out great.” When she arrived for good in May 2007, her English was rough, but her network of contacts was vast. “I asked people from the [event] for work and they said to improve my English and look for work in Arabic papers. They offered many solutions, but all of them involved staying away from them,” she recalls. After scouting several Canadian-Arabic papers, which Al Askary dismisses as businesses, not journalism, she launched her own publication—Sootna (“Our Voice”)—in June 2008, about human rights issues in the Arab world. Again, her Canadian colleagues briefly showed support. But then “all the people who said I’ll help you with fundraisers and I’ll write about you in our newspaper were gone.” Financial constraints limited Al Askary to publishing a single 12-page edition, which she still carries in her bag, and flips through with enthusiasm, pride and longing. Today, a combination of freelance pieces for Arab newspapers and international human rights organizations keeps her afloat, but it’s a comedown for an award-winning reporter with a master’s degree in journalism and 13 years of experience.
“Do you know what it’s like to be a journalist and live for three years without writing?” she says, putting her publication and her dream back into her bag. “The Canadian media doesn’t accept us as journalists—we’re just freedom fighters to them. Yes, I was honoured when I was tortured in Egypt, but what’s happening to me now is worse than torture.”
Many journalists who come here by mischance or choice share her sense of disillusionment. Nik Kowsar, a 40-year-old editorial cartoonist from Iran, arrived in Toronto in 2003 with a portfolio that included images distributed by the New York Times Syndicate, published books of illustrations and awards from the National Press Club and Cartoonists Rights Network International. “I was told I didn’t have enough Canadian experience,” he recounts of his attempts to penetrate the mainstream. Instead, he was urged to work in a clothing store or a restaurant to gain a better appreciation for Canadian culture. “It was very insulting,” says Kowsar. “If somebody comes from a different background and has a lot to give but doesn’t know how, there should be a system that helps them share their potential.”
Now, though, the primary system at work is the precariousness of the newspaper industry. As Haroon Siddiqui says, “There are almost no jobs. It’s a horrible, tragic situation that doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better.” There may be some desire to diversify newsrooms, but in a profession where the last in is the first out, it’s hard to find room. “One of the great failures of modern journalism is that publications didn’t make the hires when they should have. They missed the boat and now they’re subject to greater forces.” Siddiqui’s former boss, John Honderich, now Torstar chair, argues that the mainstream media is trying to accommodate these individuals: “It’s not like we are against these people—quite the contrary.” But Kowsar isn’t so sure: “Any new person from another country is trouble for them. They think they’ll have to start at square one.”
Talking to Roger Gillespie and Jim Poling reveals a different perspective. Both work in the mainstream media and share a track record of dedication to the foreign-born journalist cause. Gillespie has been the training and development editor at the Star since June 2008, after working at the Spectator for 20 years. As the Hamilton paper’smanaging editor, he would often stay in the newsroom late into the evening to assist interns such as Mir Mahdavi with their articles. “It’s not patience but resources that are required,” he says today from his office at the Star. “Not very many newspapers are prepared to put in those resources and that’s a shame.” However, any publication serious about integrating foreign-born journalists should offer several years of training to those who need it, not just a few weeks.
For a short time, the Spectator came close to achieving this,offering a year-long paid internship through its Internationally Trained Journalist program. Hanging on managing editor Jim Poling’s office wall is the Vox Libera Award he received from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression in 2008, for his leadership in establishing the ITJ program in 2003. Over lunch, Poling reminisces about Mir Mahdavi, a former intern, who had an impressive ability to get in touch with Afghanistan’s most influential players so effortlessly from his desk. Although restructuring forced the program’s end in March 2009, Poling’s enthusiasm for diversity is undiminished. “There’s lots of understanding needed to piece together our society,” he says, “and new journalists can bring new insights into the newsroom.”
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One major event to acknowledge the value of foreign-born journalists was the 2004 “Building a Writers in Exile Network” event in Ottawa. Hosted by PEN Canada, it gathered over 90 PEN representatives from a variety of countries, plus publishers and delegates from Canadian cultural organizations, universities and colleges. Among the attendees was Joyce Wayne, department head of journalism at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, at the time. Wayne was moved by the speeches delivered by exiled journalists and author John Ralston Saul, husband of then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Wayne remembers Saul, who co-chaired the event, encouraging the audience to embrace foreign-born writers, reminding them that diverse voices are essential to a vibrant democracy.
“Something had to be done,” says Wayne. “Here we were in this historic building, and Canada has a long history as a haven for refugees, and I felt moved by that and the need to carry on that tradition.” Less than two years later, Wayne, with the assistance of Philip Adams, who ran PEN Canada’s Readers & Writers program, and David Cozac, then program coordinator for PEN, founded Canadian Journalism for Internationally Trained Writers. The one-year Sheridan College program, renamed Media for Global Professionals in 2009, strives to provide educated foreign-born journalists and academics with the tools to better understand their new environment, cultivate contacts and acquire Canadian experience through a six- to 14-week internship. Since 2007, 73 students from countries as diverse as Pakistan, Eritrea and Colombia have gone through the program, which includes such courses as media law and ethics, Canadian news writing and Canadian cultural studies.
To get the program started, Sheridan received over $110,000 from The Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail, CBC and the Toronto Star combined, as well as six-digit sums from the provincial and federal governments. In September 2007, the first group of students headed off to CBC or the Star or, in the case of Mir Mahdavi, to the Spectator for a one-year internship. It was all going so well. But then, according to Wayne, the Globe, which had initially expressed willingness to accept interns from the program, didn’t follow through. Then, just one night before four students were due to be interviewed for two paid internship positions at CP, she received a call from Paul Woods, the human resources manager, cancelling the meetings.
“But you haven’t even met the candidates,” Wayne objected. “How do you know before meeting them that their English is lousy and they won’t be able to keep up in your newsroom?” (Woods says it was Wayne’s own recent admission that her students “struggled to write at an acceptable level of English” and had little, if no, audiovisual training, a requirement for the internship, that deterred him from following through.) Either way, the students, who were eager for their first Canadian interview, were devastated, and for the 42 students who have gone through the Sheridan program since, obtaining journalism internships remains difficult. Of last year’s class, four of the 15 students interned in newsrooms, while the rest were sent to work in book publishing or public relations.
When there are open positions, some of the strongest competition Sheridan students and their counterparts face is from people like Danielle Wong, a recent hire at the Spec. A first-generation Chinese-Canadian, she’s fluent in three languages, well connected to Toronto’s Asian communities, has interned at the Toronto Star, TheWindsor Star and National Post, and has a Ryerson journalism degree. Each year, the country’s journalism schools graduate similarly qualified students.
As for the foreign-born journalists who are working in the mainstream media, many are not newcomers; they are people like Haroon Siddiqui, who arrived in Canada from his native India in 1967 at 25, with Indian experience and good English. “If I came today I’d probably fail as well,” he says. Siddiqui also had a break when he moved to Toronto. Clark Davey, then managing editor of the Globe, interviewed him, and pitched him to a publisher acquaintance for a position at the Brandon Sun, where Siddiqui garnered his Canadian experience.
Luck also touched Merita Ilo, a former Associated Press reporter in her native Albania. “Mine is not a typical story because a lot of things worked,” the 40-year-old acknowledges. When she arrived in Toronto with her husband and their nine-year-old daughter in August 2002, Ilo was fortunate to have a contact at AP with whom she had worked during the war in Kosovo in the mid-’90s. Her colleague found her a part-time job with AP, but more importantly, her new office was located in the same building as The Canadian Press. A month later, a position at CP’s world desk came up and Ilo was tipped to it. “If I wasn’t with AP or in that building, there’s no way I would’ve found that job,” she says. She got an interview with the foreign editor, a journalist from Hong Kong who had immigrated to Canada 33 years earlier, and who “understood my story in a way a person born here wouldn’t be able to,” she says. Eight years later, Ilo is a national desk editor at CP’s Toronto office.
Nik Kowsar’s story is more typical than Ilo’s, although he too belongs to the small cohort of émigrés earning a living by practising journalism here. Kowsar, whose work for 20 newspapers in Tehran earned him numerous death threats, says his initial years after arriving here in 2003 were trying. “I went from hero to zero. I had a lot of energy to say something, to do something, to be seen, to publish stuff that was useful. I would have loved to get some experience in a Canadian newsroom and not lose that fire I had in my mind and my heart, but it was difficult.” Kowsar spent his first year and a half here working at two dry cleaners before becoming a midnight online editor for Marketwire. All along he worked as a freelance illustrator and, beginning in 2006, filed reports for Radio Zamaneh in the Netherlands.
Today he runs a citizen journalism forum at khodnevis.org for Iranians in Iran and abroad, and makes his living from illustrations for roozonline.com and the Washington-based Win TV. Most importantly, he has found a way to express himself and the issues he feels passionately about: “I now get e-mails and questions from Canadians because they want to learn more or help. I feel as if I’m giving something back. I’m educating, and that’s positive.”
Oscar Vigil, a Salvadoran journalist, also believes his contribution to Canadian media has been positive even though he now wields just a shadow of the influence he enjoyed as the owner of two radio stations back home.Vigil, his wife and three children, were forced to flee their country in 2001 after repeated death threats and an attempt on his life. In Toronto, given his weak English, he concluded that his future lay outside the Canadian mainstream. He spent three years writing for Correo Canadiense, one of Canada’s most influential Spanish-language papers, and two years operating paginauno.ca, a Toronto-Latino community website, before launching his own site, revistadebate.ca, in 2008. Vigil currently supplements his income by writing for El Popular, a Toronto-based Spanish-language paper, and freelancing for publications back home. “When I came here I had to ask myself what I was going to do. Was I going to sell insurance? Cars?” he asks. “Or was I going to continue to do what I love? What’s more important: the position I had or the profession?”
Not all foreign-born journalists have the same capacity to adapt to their new environments. Kumsa and Mahdavi, for example, have had difficulty diverting their attention from issues they have invested years fighting for. They are accomplished men nearing middle age, and for Mahdavi, the idea of working for an editor who is younger and unaware of the sacrifices he has made on behalf of his craft is hard to accept. There is also the challenge of writing in English: “Those silly articles. They can’t bring back the power of Farsi,” laments Mahdavi of his attempts to express himself at the Spectator. In fact, for Mahdavi, the situation in Canada has become so bleak that he is considering a return to Afghanistan despite the risk of imprisonment or assassination. “When your life is meaningless it’s like you’re already at the end,” he says despairingly.
Intikhab Amir, a 40-year-old Pakistani journalist, who arrived in Toronto in 2006, is also considering a return home. Amir is another Sheridan graduate, yet aside from a seven-week CBC internship and eight weeks at Torstar’s Metroland, he hasn’t found media work here. He is applying for a master’s program in communications and culture, but if he isn’t accepted and fails to find a good job, he will return to Pakistan and seek work from his former employers, BBC Urdu and Dawn news, Pakistan’s oldest English TV station. “I do not want my daughters to be identified as girls whose father works as a security guard,” he says. “They tell their fellow students that their dad is a journalist and I don’t want to shatter their dreams.”
Nonetheless, there are still journalists willing to employ whatever means necessary in order to practise journalism in Canada, like Kowsar and Vigil, says Vladimir Kabelik, a Czechoslovakian documentary producer and Sheridan professor. In his 2009 documentary So Far from Home, he chronicles the lives of five exiles, including Mahdavi and Kowsar, to highlight the professional and personal challenges facing these individuals.
But today Kabelik still can’t identify the magic ingredient that allowed some of his protagonists to keep their careers alive in Canada, while others, like Mahdavi and Kumsa, have floundered. Kabelik says having sound English and good time management skills are essential for success, in addition to being flexible and having the capacity to handle stress. “There is filter after filter after filter and only a few reach their goal,” he says. “If you are prone to be depressed or angry, it will backfire.” Kabelik’s colleague, Joyce Wayne, is also baffled. “It has something to do with just getting a break at some point.”
Getting a break. It’s an observation shared by many of the foreign-born journalists I interviewed: “If only I get a shot,” they would say. “We know our English is not as strong—that it might take more time to copy edit our work—but we also bring so much to the newsroom. We have contacts all over the world and unique perspectives and plenty of experience as well, even if it’s not that damned ‘Canadian experience.’
“Why can’t the media do more to include us?”