All posts by Farah N. Mawani

About Farah N. Mawani

Kenyan-born Canadian global mental health policy researcher, FreetheHikers Co-founder/Social Media Director, and Founder Farahway Global. Farahway Global is a non-profit organization that engages the global public in action for human rights and mental health.

Free Dr. Tarek Loubani and Prof John Greyson From Wrongful Imprisonment in Egypt


On World Humanitarian Day, I think of all the remarkable people who risk their lives to save the lives of others. I celebrate their contributions, and mourn the violence, imprisonment, suffering and loss of life many of them have had to endure while trying to make the world a better place for all of us. I think of their family and friends who love and admire them so greatly, they tirelessly support them, fight for them, defend their human rights, and often suffer grave consequences to their own health and lives in doing so.

I think especially of family and friends of Dr. Tarek Loubani and Prof. John Greyson, arrested by Egyptian authorities on Friday, August 16, 2013. They are experiencing a horror, far too similar to the horror I experienced almost exactly four years ago, when my precious friends Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd, were captured by the Iranian regime. Dr. Loubani is an emergency room physician in London, ON, and John Greyson, an associate professor at York University and director of York’s graduate program in film, in Toronto, ON. Both have long-standing admirable records of global humanitarian work.

I have worked with Dr. Loubani, and Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care to advocate for health care for refugees in Canada, collaborating in a National Day of Action just two months ago. Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care released the following statement:

“Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care is deeply concerned by news that one of its members, prominent London, Ontario emergency physician Dr. Tarek Loubani has been arrested in Egypt. Dr. Loubani was in Egypt providing volunteer health services and was arrested along with a colleague, York University Professor John Greyson. Egyptian authorities should be aware of Dr. Loubani’s extensive work providing medical treatment to people in need in the Middle East. He is also well respected in Canada for assisting refugees — including refugees from the Middle East — in securing public health care in this country.”

York University has released this statement:

“York University is extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of John Greyson, an associate professor at York University and director of York’s graduate program in film, as well as Tarek Loubani, an emergency room doctor from London, Ontario, who have been detained in Cairo, Egypt.”

According to the Facebook group launched by family and friends, “Tarek and John were in Cairo on their way to Gaza, where Tarek was to participate in a medical collaboration that has been established between the University of Western Ontario and the Emergency Department of Al Shifa Hospital (Gaza’s largest hospital), and where John, a professor at York University’s Department of Film, intended to conduct preparatory work for a film project.”

Justin Podur, a close friend and colleague of Dr. Loubani and Prof Greyson, elaborates that Dr. Loubani was traveling to Gaza as part of a group of Canadian doctors “to train physicians there in advanced cardiac and trauma life support.” Prof. Greyson joined him to “explore the possibility of a film project about the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza.”

On World Humanitarian Days 2010 and 2011, I fought to build global support for the freedom of humanitarians Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd, held hostage by the Iranian regime for 2 years and 2 months. As WHD 2013 approached, I was preoccupied with the fourth anniversary of the day Josh, Shane, and Sarah were captured. Though I was not always conscious of it, my body, mind, and spirit felt the anniversary approaching. My trauma symptoms increased, I felt a sense of foreboding…my body remembered what I went through four years ago, and each annual anniversary of their captivity.

Now, I am experiencing a déjà vu I would prefer not to. I am compelled to campaign to prevent Dr. Loubani and Prof. Greyson, and all their loved ones, from experiencing the unnecessarily protracted and painful detention we did. I call on Egyptian authorities to free them and enable them to continue their critical humanitarian work. I call on the Canadian government to ensure that happens without further delay. And I call on you to keep up the global call for their freedom.

Please sign this petition, and join this Facebook Group to stay informed of progress, calls for action, and a Facebook Page and website coming soon. Every action you take makes a difference to their spirits, the ability of their loved ones to keep fighting, and ultimately to their freedom. I know from experience.


Note: A website has just been launched for the latest news and calls for action. Please share it far and wide.

Re-posted from Huffington Post

4 Years After Iran Imprisonment: Remembering, Gratitude, and the Birth of a Boy Named Free

Rainbow - Guelph Lake
Rainbow (Farah N. Mawani/Farahway Global)

“Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly
And the dreams that you dreamed of
Dreams really do come true.”

Four years ago, on July 31, 2009, my precious friends Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd were captured by the Iranian regime, while on a hiking vacation in Iraqi Kurdistan. Three years ago, I felt the weight of their year held hostage, while centrally coordinating and promoting 40 events worldwide marking that challenging milestone. Two months after that, Sarah was freed. Two years ago, I awaited news of the final trial session for Josh and Shane, while centrally coordinating global events to mark an even more challenging to bear two years of imprisonment. A few weeks later, they were sentenced to eight years in Evin prison, Iran. Two months later, Josh and Shane were freed. One year ago, I wrote about the continued injustices the Iranian regime imposes on Masoud Shafi, the lawyer who fought at such great risk for Josh, Shane, and Sarah.

It’s hard to describe how intense the weight of that anniversary feels when it is loaded with so many traumatic associations. As I experienced during the prolonged ordeal, words are “woefully inadequate to describe my feelings.” My body, mind, and spirit, however, have been feeling this day approaching for some time. Often without me being fully conscious of it. A book on trauma, aptly titled, “The Body Remembers,” asserts “people who have been traumatized hold an implicit memory of traumatic events in their brains and bodies.” My body remembers.

Birth Announcement_080413It’s even harder to describe how miraculous it felt to hear the news of the birth of Josh and Jenny’s son, Isaiah Azad Fattal, in the midst of all that intensity. Right when I was thinking about how I could transform the anniversary into a positive one. Josh and Isaiah heard my request. Much like I felt Josh could hear me, when the Iranian regime imposed walls between us for more than two years. As I was longing to hear how he was after Isaiah’s birth, he heard me again. He sent me a message sharing how he felt, and asking me if I was “okay with posting” Isaiah’s birth announcement on our Free the Hikers Facebook page. Josh, Shane, Sarah, and I seek consensus from each other before posting on the page. We decided on that process together when they wanted to honor the immense time and energy I put into building the community on the page, and I wanted them to fully have their voices back.  I’m still honored every time Josh, Shane, and Sarah ask me if I support what they want to post. Of course I was far more than “okay with posting” Isaiah’s birth announcement!  I was especially grateful that Josh asked me to post it on his behalf.

It felt unbelievably thrilling and fulfilling to post it. That page represented so many things to me, and the Free the Hikers family, during the campaign. Integrated with our website, community blog, Twitter, and YouTube page, it was the “place where we could meet Josh, Shane, and Sarah across the abyss between us, and hold them close.” It was the place we mobilized others to join us on our journey to FREEDOM. It was the place where we sought support to keep our hope afloat. Every time I posted on the page, multiple times a day, for more than two years, I felt Josh, Shane, and Sarah with me. And we noticed every response, in the form of likes, comments, and shares, even when there were 32 000 supporters there. We felt our supporters, including many of you reading this, with us every step of the way.  

I remember our interactions and your multitude of actions, and carry them with me on my journey forward. I remember approaching Gotham, knowing he would understand, because he too had experienced a precious friend unjustly detained abroad – Laura Ling, who was freed from North Korea just days after Josh, Shane, and Sarah were captured. I was right – he responded promptly and compassionately. That time, and many other times when I asked him for support. As did Mallika, and Deepak, and those who work closely with them.  Laura Ling, Euna Lee (detained with her), and Laura’s sister Lisa, who had campaigned tirelessly for their freedom, reached out to offer us support, almost right after Laura and Euna were freed.  Even while consumed by our own crisis, I was astounded by that. Later in our campaign, I remember Laura reaching out at just the right time to let me know that when she was imprisoned, she could feel the vigils people held for them.  Giving me just the push I needed to keep going. And today, when I was feeling drained from the intensity of the past week, and the four years leading up to it, Gotham shared his blog post expressing his joy at the news of Isaiah’s birth. That gave me just the push I needed to complete mine.

Every gesture of support affects me profoundly. As I explained to a twitter supporter at the dawn of the four year anniversary, “Humanity in the face of inhumanity takes on extra special significance.”So, I am especially happy that Josh wanted to share Isaiah’s birth with you. Your support is what made it possible for Josh and Jenny to give birth to a beautiful boy with the middle name Azad, Farsi for FREE.  You sharing this joyous part of our journey with us means the world to me. Thank you. May Isaiah Azad Fattal embody the transformation of violence into peace for all of us.

“I hear babies cry and I watch them grow,
They’ll learn much more
Than we’ll know
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world”

~ ‘Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,’ by Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole


‘Bullets to Butterflies’: Using Art to Promote Girls’ Education

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 11.16.21 AMOn October 9, 2012, Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani student and education activist, was shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Like people around the world, I was stunned. My shock quickly turned to outrage at such horrific violence against a young girl courageously speaking out for girls’ right to education.

I thought about the significance of education in my life, and my very early recognition of its significance. When we migrated to Canada from Kenya, I missed my nursery school so much, I begged my mother to take me to school. I was below the cut-off age to start Junior Kindergarten, so my mother was unable to enroll me. That didn’t stop me. I kept pleading until my mother begged the principal to let me start. He did. I wouldn’t be the person I am without that opportunity; without my right to education being honoured.

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Gardiner Museum for a preview of “Bullets to Butterflies”, an interactive art exhibit by Canadian artists Unaiza Karim, Saba Syed, and Huma Durrani, inspired by Malala Yousafzai. I was deeply moved by the artists’ passion for the issues underlying Malala’s story, and their determination to transform violence into peace and positive change.

I felt strongly that the exhibit was an ideal fit with the mission of my agency, Farahway Global, that engages the global public in action for human rights and mental health. In the process of planning with the Centre for Social Innovation – Regent Park, where Farahway Global is based, Artscape requested that we host the exhibit in the Daniels Spectrum South Lobby for Asian Heritage Month. In anticipation of our Closing Reception on Thursday, May 30, 2013, I interviewed Huma Durrani about the show.

FNM: What inspired you to create this exhibit?

HD: After the shooting of Malala, there was a strong desire to do something more about the education problems in Pakistan. Saba and Unaiza have children who go to Sunday school together, and while their children were in class, they discussed putting together an art show about Malala’s courage, to raise awareness and funds for schools in Pakistan. When Unaiza told me about the project, I immediately asked to join forces with them.

FNM: Tell me about your professional backgrounds that enabled you to come together and create such a beautiful, powerful exhibit.

HD: All three of us are artists, and were referred to each other by other friends who insisted we needed to connect.

Saba Syed is a Canadian artist specializing silk screening based in Port Perry, Ontario. Saba completed her Fine Arts education at York University in Toronto, Canada. She runs her own silk-screen printing studio and teaches art to local children.

Unaiza Karim graduated with her Masters degree from The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London. She has specialized in the Art of Illumination from the Islamic tradition and was professionally trained in Turkey.

I am a Canadian artist based in Mississauga. My work is inspired by Islamic art, geometrical patterns and a modern contemporary aesthetic. The majority of my work is done by hand cutting delicate Japanese papers into intricate and precise designs.

FNM: How does your exhibit address girls’ right to education?

HD: All of our pieces address different issues related to the story of Malala Yousafzai – her courage, her mission to speak out for all children to be educated – and also to the education crisis that currently exists in Pakistan. Many people, including Pakistanis who are living abroad, are not even aware of how serious the situation is. We wanted to bring attention to this emergency, and do something about it. The beauty of this exhibit, is that all three artists have different specializations that they are bringing to this show. With the combination of detailed illuminations, silk-screen prints, and delicate paper cuts, the show brings together different art forms and ideas addressing a single issue.

'See Me' by Saba Syed
‘See Me’ by Saba Syed

FNM: Can you tell me more about each of your unique pieces in the exhibit?

HD: In Saba Syed’s piece, ‘See Me’, the young veiled child provokes ideas of gender and religion. ‘See Me’ challenges our assumptions that this is an image of a veiled girl but is in fact of a veiled boy. Saba explains, “I wanted a piece that would remind us that we should always question our ‘truths’. Often understanding only comes when we are open to the realization that all may not be as it seems.”

In relation to the Taliban, the veiled boy represents their inability to see themselves within the feminine. Encumbered by this mindset, this creation of ‘The Other’ creates a separation that justifies the use of violence on those who are ‘different’. The butterflies symbolize metamorphosis; that although Malala’s was shot down for her views on the rights for girls to an education, she survived. Her message actually spread and has gathered many supporters.

'The Inivation 'Dawat'', by Unaiza Karim
‘The Inivation ‘Dawat”, by Unaiza Karim

Unaiza’s piece, ‘The Invitation “Dawat”‘ is based on traditional book arts. In this style, each page is carefully decorated to prepare the reader for what is written on the page they are looking at and what is to come. Many medieval Qurans begin with the ‘garden page’ – a visual feast of natural world themes, symbolism and geometry that sets the tone and serves as an invitation to continue.

Unaiza elaborates, “I offer a similar ‘dawat’ (invitation) in this traditionally ornamented page, inviting the onlooker to read, to learn and to grow – every child’s right.”

'The Butterfly Effect,' by Huma Durrani
‘The Butterfly Effect,’ by Huma Durrani

My piece, ‘The Butterfly Effect’, is made from hand cut Japanese paper. It speaks to the importance of education for all, regardless of gender. The first revelation of the Holy Quran is this verse: “Read, in the name of your Lord” – Qur’an (Chapter 96, Verse 1). Reading is an act of worship and has been encouraged in Islam for all people. The holy verse is hand cut into the wings of the butterfly. This piece presents that when the feminine power takes hold and implements the command to read, the power that she will hold and share with the world will have an impact on all that surround her. The extent of the effects of women having knowledge is boundless.

FNM: How have you made the exhibit interactive?

HD: We wanted to engage people coming to the exhibit, and make them a part of the art. Our bullet-ridden wall was designed by Saba Syed. In our first exhibit, we invited attendees to answer the question “If you could trade all the bullets in the world for something else, what would you trade them for?” and insert their responses in the bullet holes.

Interactive bullet-ridden wall
Interactive bullet-ridden wall, Photo: Angela Lattanzio Photography

One of the most thoughtful responses was from 7 year old Zain Rashid:

“I would trade for more schools. Because if there are more schools, people will learn more, and when people will learn more about peace. When there is more peace, there is less fighting.”

FNM: You say you wanted to “do something” about the education crisis in Pakistan. I am sure that your exhibit inspires the same desire in others. How are you integrating the potential for such action into your exhibit?

HD: At the show, we sell prints and other items of merchandise to support schools in Pakistan. For our first show we supported Developments in Literacy (DIL) Canada, and for our second show we are supporting the Hope Uplift Foundation. Both of these organizations are doing incredible things to address the education crisis in Pakistan. In December, we were able to raise $500 for DIL Canada. We have also set up an Etsy page where people can buy prints with partial proceeds going towards schools in Pakistan.

Schools, museums, libraries, and other organizations and spaces can host the exhibit to continue reflection, discussion and action on these critical issues.

FNM: Thank you so much for sharing your powerful work and thoughts. I hope this piece will encourage people to join us at the Bullets to Butterflies Closing Reception: May 30, 6-8pm, South Lobby, Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas St. E., Toronto, ON. I also hope people will participate in the exhibit on Facebook and Twitter.

UPDATE: The exhibition has been extended to June 10


Reposted from The Huffington Post

2 Doctors Who Revolutionized HIV/AIDS Prevention in Iran and the Lawyer Who Freed Them

Sunrise (Farah N. Mawani/Farahway Global)

I woke up at dawn today and my first thought was of Drs. Kamiar and Arash Alaei winning the first Elizabeth Taylor Human Rights Award at the International AIDS 2012 conference in Washington, DC on Sunday. I was beckoned by light streaming through an opening in my blinds, the light of a sunrise filled with hope and the promise of freedom.

Dr. Kamiar Alaei, a University at Albany public health doctoral candidate, and his brother, Dr. Arash Alaei, were recognized for their “pioneering work in HIV prevention and treatment for people who use drugs in Iran and…outstanding courage and efforts to advocate for human rights of people affected by HIV.”

I wish I could have been there. Such an award is a great honour. As a public health scientist, I especially admire their work implementing Iran’s first HIV/AIDS prevention program.  As a health policy researcher, I value their work putting the issues of drug use and HIV/AIDS on Iran’s national health care agenda. And as a health inequalities specialist, I respect their creation of Iran’s HIV/AIDS prison program, recognized by Physicians for Human Rights as “one of the best in the region if not the world.”

Most of all, I am in awe of their strength, courage and commitment in continuing their critical global HIV/AIDS work after enduring years of imprisonment by the Iranian regime resulting from that very work. Having spent much of the time they were imprisoned, fighting for FREEDOM from the same Iranian prison for Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, I have a visceral understanding of the preciousness of their freedom. Seeing the joy emanating from them as they receive the award, joy that masks years of unimaginable injustice and suffering, brings tears to my eyes.

Reflecting on the ongoing injustices perpetrated by the Iranian regime keeps those tears flowing.  I think of their lawyer, Masoud Shafii, without whom Kamiar and Arash would not be free.  The same lawyer without whom Josh, Shane and Sarah would not be free. Mr. Shafii’s belief in truth and justice is so strong and unwavering that he took on the Iranian regime, notorious for abusing human rights in the most evil ways imaginable.  He risked his life doing so.

Since Josh and Shane were released 10 months ago, the regime has punished him by confiscating his passport, preventing him from visiting his sister’s grave and his children in North America. The regime has detrimentally affected his life, the lives of his family, and the lives of other potential clients and their loved ones by preventing him from practicing law.  This at a time when the regime continues to commit gross violations of human rights and challenges to Iran’s economy are heightened by international sanctions.

Drs Kamiar and Arash Alaei receive inaugural Elizabeth Taylor Human Rights Award from Sharon Stone on July 22, the opening day of the AIDS 2012 – XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC. (Kris Connor/Getty Images)

The long overdue recognition for the work of Drs. Kamiar and Arash Alaei fills me with hope that Mr. Shafii will soon be FREE to receive such well-deserved recognition himself.  I will never forget what he did to give my friends and their loved ones their precious lives back. I know he gave the same courage and grace in his fights for Kamiar and Arash, and countless others. His rare combination of fearlessness and compassion make him unbeatable. While fighting so intensively and courageously, he always found time to express his gratitude to me. That gratitude kept me going in a battle that often seemed unwinnable. I feel immeasurable gratitude to him in return.

As I watched birds soar through the pink speckled sky of the sunrise, I thought of all the political prisoners Masoud has helped soar. I pictured Mr. Shafii soaring at the first opportunity his FREEDOM gives him.


TAKE ACTION: Please sign this petition urging the Iranian regime to return Mr. Shafii’s passport and let him do his job.

Join and for updates and calls for action.

See for more information.

I Can See Clearly Now: Recovering from PTSD

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars”

~ Kahlil Gibran

Tuesday, June 26, was the United Nations International Day In Support of Victims of Torture.  I spent the days leading up to it reflecting on psychological torture, and particularly the impact of psychological torture on me.  Although it is difficult to delve into, I want to share some of that experience. I hope it will increase global understanding of the devastating impact of psychological torture, the remarkable courage of those who face it, and the support people need on their journeys of recovery.

My 9 month journey since my precious brother, Josh Fattal, was released after 2 years and 2 months of being held hostage by the Iranian regime, has not been an easy one. I continue to struggle to recover the very full life I once led and to transform the heart shattering experience into something positive.

According to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984, art. 1, para.1),

“[T]he term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person…by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

In a Physicians for Human Rights report entitled ‘Break Them Down: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by US Forces,‘ ‘psychological torture’ is defined as ‘‘severe mental pain or suffering…including threats of death or injury and the administration or application or threatened administration or application of “procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.”

Josh, Shane and Sarah clearly experienced severe pain and suffering, carried out by Iranian public officials, for a specific purpose – to blackmail the American government.  Their loved ones also experienced severe mental pain and suffering, initially from the Iranian regime not acknowledging that they had captured them for weeks, and then from more than two years of constant threats to their lives and safety in the context of extremely limited communication with them and limited information about their well-being and ultimate fate.  The psychological torture intensified each time the Iranian regime made a promise and then reneged on it, including multiple trial dates they cancelled at the last minute.  We felt like we were on an extreme roller-coaster ride, with highs and lows like none we had ever experienced.  Though I fought as hard as I could to FREE Josh, Shane and Sarah, throughout, that seemingly never-ending traumatic journey had dire consequences for me.

In an article in The Lancet, Christy Fujio from Physicians for Human Rights, states “The Iranian Government wants to break peoples’ spirits, they want to set an example…The Iranian Government has deliberately fostered an intense climate of fear in order to oppress the population and quiet voices of dissent”. Agents of the Iranian regime have continued to harass and threaten me since Josh and Shane were freed on September 21, 2011.

On June 26, I started my day by forgetting my keys in my door because I was so stressed about a meeting with a mentor, to discuss how to complete my PhD thesis in the context of my healing psychological scars.  I expected her to be supportive and helpful, but facing the fact that I had to take an extended leave from my almost complete PhD, while Josh was held hostage, is painful and difficult. It is especially challenging because I have to deal with the numerous consequences of that leave, while still recovering from 2 years and 2 months of psychological torture inflicted by the Iranian regime. It is also very difficult for me to trust that authority figures have my interests at heart, after Iranian authorities inflicted psychological torture on Josh, Shane, Sarah and their loved ones, including me.

Despite the challenges, the meeting went well and I feel a renewed determination to complete my PhD against all obstacles. I went directly to an official event to mark June 26, that was a perfect segue into my journey forward. ‘Journey of Hope’ was hosted by the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT), a Toronto-based centre within a global network of such centres, that offered me critical support and advice during Josh’s captivity in Iran. They not only understood and validated my experience, but demonstrated great wisdom in their advice to me; wisdom clearly gained from extensive experience with people in similar situations to mine.

One of the key elements in my journey of hope is calm. I seek calm spaces and calm communication.  Communication that is not calm does not feel safe. It heightens my anxiety levels and pushes me to isolate myself for safety. I first noticed my heightened need for calm during Josh, Sarah and Shane’s captivity. I had a heightened sensitivity to noise, anger and unkindness. That was a significant part of the standard response I drafted for abusive comments on our Free the Hikers campaign Facebook page:

“Thanks to all for your comments. What we need now more than ever is your support in getting Sarah, Shane and Josh released. Peaceful communication is most supportive to us during this intensely challenging time, especially as it honors the values that Sarah, Shane and Josh hold so dear.”

This need was echoed in a comment from a child client that a CCVT counselor shared at the ‘Journey of Hope’ event: “You are kind because you don’t yell.”

My search for safe space has been a challenging one.  During Josh’s captivity, I worked in an extremely psychologically unsafe environment that made dealing with the trauma far more difficult than it already was. It took me time to acknowledge and ask for the support I needed, because of course I was focused on Josh’s far more dire needs for safety.  When I did ask for what I needed, my workplace did not acknowledge, let alone accept my multiple formal accommodation requests. Despite the intense global publicity about the case and my connection to it, they blatantly denied my experience, telling me “We don’t buy it.” They consistently put me in work spaces that re-traumatized me (tiny, dark spaces, with no view of a window, reminiscent of the prison cell that was constantly on my mind because Josh was trapped in it), until I had to take a leave from work due to complex trauma/PTSD.

For the year and a half since then, it has been extremely difficult to secure a calm and safe space for myself because Great-West Life, my employee health insurance company, has not paid me any of the long-term disability payments they owe me.  They, like my former employer, treat me with mistrust despite the public nature of my battle and the extensive documentation from multiple health professionals I have provided them with. Shockingly, as journalist Jan Wong recently revealed in her memoir on workplace depression, such tactics are common practices among Canadian health insurance companies, particularly for avoiding disability payments for mental health issues.

Without the disability payments I am owed, I have been forced to move from temporary place to temporary place, while longing for the space I need. Though still experiencing extreme financial hardship, just last week I moved into my own space.  When I found it, I knew it was the right space because I didn’t want to leave. When I moved in, one of my first thoughts was, “I can think clearly now.” I have the high ceilings, large windows and accessible outdoor space that I longed for. I don’t feel imprisoned, as I did in the workspace I was forced into for so long. Watching and listening to the breeze blow through the trees my place overlooks takes me to the tropical Kenyan coast of my childhood. It fills me with a sense that I am going to be all right.

As Johnny Nash sings:

“I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright, bright
Sun-shiny day.”

Mothers of the Wrongfully Imprisoned: 7 Causes in 7 Days

My mother, Credit: Farah N. Mawani

Yesterday I celebrated Mother’s Day with my mother, my aunt (a ‘bonus’ mother as my friend puts it), my brothers, and my niece and nephew. We had a barbecue on a sunny deck overlooking a tree-filled park. It was a beautiful day with my family that I will always remember. Only a few years ago, we feared losing our mother when she was diagnosed with breast cancer just before Mother’s Day.  Last year we were able to celebrate the milestone of 5 years of remission with her. This year she looked stronger and healthier than ever, and in less than a month, my brother Zohrab is doing an epic two day bike ride to raise funds for the Princess Margaret Hospital, where she received treatment.

In the midst of our joy at simply being able to be with our mother, I couldn’t help reflecting on how I spent Mother’s Day last year and the year before: fighting for FREEDOM for my precious brother Josh Fattal, and my friends Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, held hostage by the Iranian regime for two years and two months. It was heartbreaking to be working closely with their mothers, Laura Fattal, Cindy Hickey and Nora Shourd, who were at the forefront of our Free the Hikers campaign but unable to even speak to Josh, Shane and Sarah over the phone on Mother’s Day.

On the first Mother’s Day during our campaign, Josh’s brother Alex sent this message:

“Hi Friends and Supporters of Shane, Sarah and Josh,

Today is a particularly tough day for our families as we are passing Mother’s Day without Shane, Sarah and Josh. We are shocked that over five months after their mothers applied for visas to visit them those visas have still not been issued.  Prisoners around the world are entitled to visits from family members. This egregious delay in issuing the visas is just one more right that Iran is denying the hikers.”

Credit: AP Photo/Richard Drew

I sent this message to Laura, Cindy and Nora:

 Hi Laura, Cindy and Nora,

When I last wrote to you I almost addressed you ‘Hi Moms’.  So of course I’m thinking of you today and wishing that your biggest Mother’s Day wish could be granted.  The CNN video is great and getting good circulation on twitter & facebook.

I do have a couple of positive support stories to share.

1. One of our twitter supporters wrote this blog post for you: Sad Mother’s Day for Families of Hikers Detained in Iran

She’s working hard to disseminate it on twitter and especially to urge people to take action.

2. You may already know that Safe World has decided to feature us on their home page. They have also created a ‘Film’ page for the two (soon to be three) films they’ve created about us.

I hope these supportive gestures provide you with some added support to reassure you that you are not alone in this. Many many supporters’ thoughts are with you today. I’ll keep letting you know of their supportive messages directed at you. I know that Sarah, Shane and Josh are sending you much love while feeling and admiring your strength across the miles. I share their admiration.



I expected very low traffic on our social media sites. It was a Sunday, generally a lower traffic day, and I assumed that most of our supporters would either be spending the day with their mothers or with their children.  Instead, it was one of our busiest days to date.  We were flooded with messages like these:

@fire_girl: @freethehikers celebrating the strength, resilience, courage & tenacity of #SSJ‘s moms this mothers day. you encourage & inspire many! #SSJ

@majorhissyfit: I have learned much abt motherhood from Nora, Cindy and Laura @freethehikers. Please keep them and their children in your hearts and prayers

I have no doubt that the immense support we received on Mother’s Day was largely responsible for Iranian authorities granting visas to Josh, Shane & Sarah’s mothers just two days later on May 11 2010 and enabling them to visit them on May 19, 2010.

Last year, the Iranian regime scheduled a trial session for Josh and Shane on May 11th. When Iranian authorities failed to bring Josh and Shane to court for that hearing, without any explanation, Laura Fattal and Cindy Hickey began a hunger strike in solidarity with their sons. People around the world, including the entire Chopra family, joined them in a solidarity fast.

No mother should have to go through what Laura, Cindy and Nora did. Unfortunately many continue to do so. This Mother’s Day I am working with the family of Jason Puracal, an American citizen wrongfully imprisoned in Nicaragua. His mother’s pain and loss intertwined with love and hope is evident in her words:

I had so hoped that having my son with me would be my Mother’s Day present.

It will be two years in a row now that I will not hear my son’s voice wishing me “Happy Mothers Day” or feel his warm bear hug.

A line from one of Deepak Chopra’s books comes to mind — “in our lives there is somebody out there.” Yes, there are more than 86,000 people plus the 43 members of our powerful legislative body that are showing love and support for my son, Jason. I can’t help but believe in the power of the collective consciousness and that this focused intention from so many has to trigger a transformation. I know my son shares this belief and is counting on it for his freedom. My heartfelt thanks and gratitude goes out to all of you.

I keep the hope that we will be reconciled by Nicaraguan Mother’s Day which occurs on May 27th. May that day come soon.

I hope that the support and action of people around the world buoys the spirits of Jason’s mother and family as they did over the holiday period. I hope even more that the collective intent, support and action triggers the transformation that Jason and his family need and deserve.

Freedom for All: 7 Causes in 7 Days

“Inclusion is the art of ensuring that people feel welcomed and celebrated for exactly who they are. This means that all differences (e.g. age, sexual orientation, class, faith, ability, gender identity size, ethnicity, etc), are viewed as unique gifts that an individual can offer to a group or community.” ~ Serena Belliveau-Townend, Grade 10, Carihi Secondary School, British Columbia

Traveling back to Canada from California yesterday was much more than a trip home from a wedding. It was a homecoming from a journey of almost three years.

So many of us around the world fought so hard for so long for Josh, Shane and Sarah to have the FREEDOM to do things that most of us take for granted; like the FREEDOM to get married.  And now they have that FREEDOM.

Having spent years speaking for them, fighting for them, because they did not have the FREEDOM to even do that, it has been difficult for me to absorb that they now have the FREEDOM to do so much more.  It was difficult for me to believe that Shane and Sarah’s wedding was not just a dream, like many FREEDOM dreams and visions I held onto to get me through the darkest days of their captivity.

But I did everything in my power to drink the dream in, to feel the FREEDOM coursing through my veins. There are still cracks and fissures in the FREEDOM dream that I struggle to understand. One thing, however, was very clear to me over the wedding weekend. Sarah, Shane and Josh are moving forward with their FREE lives. I no longer need to speak for them, fight for them, be there for them. I no longer have to have my ‘Free the Hikers’ identity consume all other parts of my life, all other aspects of who I am. I can finally live my life and speak for myself. I can BE myself.

During the campaign, I was a Muslim woman calling on what Shahla Khan Salter of Muslims for Progressive Values refers to as the ‘un-Islamic’ regime of Iran to FREE my friends. Now I find myself defending the human rights of my fellow Muslim women in Canada. On December 12, 2011, Canada’s Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced a new federal policy banning Muslim face coverings from Canadian citizenship ceremonies. I participated in Huffington Post Canada’s first of their Great Debate series, stating:

Completely banning Muslim face coverings is a very simplistic response to very complex issues. Rather than addressing the issues Kenney raises of “isolating and separating a group of Canadians,” such drastic policies, that don’t take complex contexts into account, further isolate and separate already marginalized groups. Rather than honouring “commitment to openness and social cohesion” such policies demonstrate a lack of commitment to openness and social cohesion.”

In an article I wrote in The Mark, I highlighted the mental health consequences of such exclusionary policies:

“This kind of discriminatory practice in Canada – sanctioned by, and, in fact, originating from, the government – has real and worrisome implications. Evidence from around the globe indicates that immigrants and refugees who experience racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination are at increased risk of developing mental-health issues and illness.

My own extensive research shows that this is especially true for immigrants and refugees who experience systemic discrimination at the hands of the Canadian government. This risk is magnified for those who have already been persecuted by governments in their countries of origin, as they may be re-traumatized by the experience of discrimination in Canada – especially when they reasonably assume that they have fled danger to settle in a safe new home.

It is not difficult to understand how the experience of being forced to remove a veil might impact a Muslim woman seeking citizenship in Canada. We know that Muslims face distinct risks in the context of the increasing Islamophobia around the globe since 9/11.”

I highlighted the incongruence of the discriminatory policy with the vision of inclusion of diversity outlined in the framework for Canada’s first mental-health strategy, released by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) in 2009. Now I can further highlight the incongruence with the Mental Health Strategy itself, just released on Tuesday, May 8 2012.

Michael Kirby, Past Chair, David Goldbloom, Chair and Louise Bradley, President and CEO of the MHCC state:

“The publication of this document represents the fulfillment of a key element of the mandate that was conferred upon the Mental Health Commission of Canada by the Government of Canada in April 2007.”

The Strategy, “developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, in close consultation with people living with mental health problems and illnesses, families, stakeholder organizations, governments, and experts” states:

Policy and approaches—on everything from child and youth services, to housing and social benefits, to the criminal justice system, to workplace health and safety— need to incorporate an understanding of what works best for the mental health of the population. Working to promote mental health and prevent mental illness should become an everyday activity across all sectors of society.

I hope that Canada’s federal government, particularly it’s Immigration Minister, heeds this call from a Commission it created to develop a Strategy it mandated.


This post is fifth in a series of seven posts to mark 7 months of FREEDOM for Josh, Shane, Sarah and all of us who fought so hard for their freedom. Each post features one cause that I am currently working on and encourages you to support the cause with concrete actions. Stay tuned for the rest of the series focused on human rights and mental health issues.

Farahway Global, my initiative inspired by my Free the Hikers experience, is a non-profit organization that engages the global public in action for human rights and mental health. Now that I have spent such a significant part of my life fighting for freedom and justice, while not feeling free myself, I am compelled to continue my efforts to restore balance to the world through Farahway Global.

photo by: Ranoush.

Everywhere in Spirit: 7 Causes in 7 Days

“Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, “You owe Me.”
Look what happens with a love like that. It lights up the Whole Sky.” ~ Hafiz

Credit: Farah N. Mawani

Today I make my way home to Toronto from California, where I attended the wedding of Sarah Shourd and Shane Bauer, two of the Americans held hostage by the Iranian regime.

Their wedding was the culmination of 2 years and 2 months of a growing global movement calling for their release, including the entire Chopra family and many members of the Intent community. Some of the key figures leading that movement were present at the wedding. Many of us worked together intensively for the duration of the campaign, some of us communicating with each other multiple times each day. During the campaign I used to dream of an epic FREEDOM celebration, with all of us together sharing the joy of the final success of our unwavering  efforts. Some central figures were missing at this celebration though; figures without whom the celebration would not have been possible.

They were everywhere in spirit.

Credit: Farah N. Mawani

Masoud Shafii, the lawyer who took such great risks for their FREEDOM, was unable to travel to the wedding because the Iranian regime is now curtailing his FREEDOM to punish him for his inspirational work to free Sarah, Shane and Josh. He was represented at the wedding by some family members and I could feel his spirit in every word of Sarah, Shane and Josh. Alex Fattal, Josh’s brother without whom there would not have been a Free the Hikers campaign, is out of the country struggling to reclaim the entire life he had to sacrifice to fight for FREEDOM for Josh, Shane and Sarah. I felt him all around us, in the expanse of sky over us, the sun and breeze embracing us, and the crashing ocean waves below us.

As I start my journey home I think of them and all the key figures without whom I would not have been able to sustain my fight, without whom I wouldn’t even be breathing now. I think of the critical importance of peer support – informal support from peers who share our experiences. The Free the Hikers community was the community with whom I co-achieved FREEDOM for Josh, Shane and Sarah.

They were also my peer support group, who could understand my suffering and struggle like no one else could. Alex, who was there whenever I needed him for anything, even in the most traumatic crisis of his entire life; Josh and Alex’s parents Laura and Jacob who were family to me through our shared pain; Alita, our web guru, who was driven to fight for Sarah with the same fervor that drove me to fight for Josh; David Marcus, our webmaster, who put Shane’s FREEDOM before anything else, and thereby responded to my need to put Josh’s FREEDOM before anything else; Jen Miller, Sarah’s friend who was always ready to round up Bay area friends and supporters, with great compassion and skill; and my cousin Salina, my Wondertwin, who was and continues to be there for me for everything.

Former political prisoners Eric Volz, Roxana Saberi, and Laura Ling also provided me with support that no one else could, helping me to feel connected to Josh when I couldn’t communicate with him directly for such a prolonged time.

The critical importance of their support, along with that of other ‘peers’,  inspired me to get involved in the Toronto-based Self-help Resource Centre (SHRC), an organization that “strengthens communities across Ontario by promoting peer support groups that facilitate positive outcomes for people who are facing diverse life transitions and challenges.”  I became a Board Member partly to ensure the critical services they provide to so many are sustained, and partly to build greater capacity for them to promote peer support groups focused on trauma. I could have used a local such group when I was dealing with a workplace that did not understand or support my experience of trauma, despite being a national mental health organization. I could use such a local group now to help me make the transition from my campaign life and community to a Toronto-based life that is part of my journey forward. Given the growing diversity of Toronto, Ontario, Canada and North America, I imagine many others could benefit from peer support groups for trauma survivors.

I am making a donation to SHRC as a wedding gift for Shane and Sarah, to honor my many ‘peers’, including Intent community members, who made it possible for me to fight for their FREEDOM. Please join me in honoring them by donating here. Thank you immensely for your peer support for peer support.


This post is fourth in a series of seven posts to mark 7 months of FREEDOM for Josh, Shane, Sarah and all of us who fought so hard for their freedom. Each post features one cause that I am currently working on and encourages you to support the cause with concrete actions. Stay tuned for the rest of the series focused on human rights and mental health issues.

Farahway Global, my initiative inspired by my Free the Hikers experience, is a non-profit organization that engages the global public in action for human rights and mental health. Now that I have spent such a significant part of my life fighting for freedom and justice, while not feeling free myself, I am compelled to continue my efforts to restore balance to the world through Farahway Global.

Crashing Waves of Emotion: 7 Causes in 7 Days

“Truth triumphs over untruth. Love conquers hatred.” ~ Gandhi

I started this 7 Causes in 7 Days blog series last week to mark 7 months of FREEDOM for Josh, Shane, Sarah and all of us who fought so hard for their freedom. The number 7 is significant in many cultures around the world, often considered lucky.  My birthday falls on November 7 and I was always told that being born on the 7th day of a month was considered very lucky in my community. So passing the 7 month of FREEDOM feels like an especially significant marker. It feels additionally significant because this past weekend, I attended the wedding for Sarah and Shane, with Josh as their best man.

Witnessing the realization of the vision Shane and Sarah had more than two years ago, while still held hostage in Iran, was as surreal as their capture and captivity.  The contrast to their captivity was dramatic: ALL outdoors with their ceremony and reception in a field surrounded by mountains, followed by brunch the next day on a beach overlooking the crashing waves of the Pacific ocean.

It was surreal but synchronous, foreshadowed by a blog, “Synchronicity Gives Me Strength”, I posted in November 2010:

“There are so many parallels between the experiences and feelings of Sarah, Shane and Josh on the ‘other side’ of those seemingly insurmountable walls and ours on ‘this side’. There are so many examples of us knowing what they are feeling and vice versa, so many examples of us communicating across the abyss. We are two rivers of life, with intertwined tributaries, flowing alongside each other. Our rivers will meet and converge into the crashing waves of an ocean of collective emotion when Shane and Josh are freed.”

The crashing waves of emotion were certainly present within me. Unbelievable joy celebrating their FREEDOM to finally realize the vision they desired in January 2010, when it seemed like an impossible dream, crashing against deep pain over the absence of people who were central to the fight for their FREEDOM and their final release.  I felt additional pain over the inability of others facing grave injustices to engage in similar celebrations of reunion and union.

I thought of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall , a Canadian citizen wrongfully imprisoned in Iran for four years this month, and his wife Antonella Mega, who are unable to see each other let alone celebrate together.  Marina Nemat, former political prisoner and author of Prisoner of Tehran, connected me with Antonella, who I discovered was a neighbour of mine in Toronto. We have now spoken over the phone a few times and plan to meet in the near future.  When we first spoke, I was struck by the kindness, compassion and sensitivity in her voice. I was amazed to hear that come through despite her suffering an unimaginable heartbreak for an unimaginably long time.  I felt an immediate and deep connection with her because I can imagine her suffering and she can imagine mine more than most.  Anyone overhearing our conversations would assume that we have been close friends for many years. When I told her how I felt about our connection, she agreed right away, referring to it as “simpatico.”

When I told her I was going to be away for a few days for Sarah and Shane’s wedding, she gushed “Oh, that’s lovely! Please pass on my very best wishes to them. I am thinking of them as people around the world are thinking of them.” I am in awe of her ability to be so genuinely thrilled for them when she has been denied the ability to be with her beloved husband for so many years. Perhaps she knows, more than most people ever will, just how precious love is.

Please speak out for justice for Hamid and support Antonella in her long fight to bring her husband home where he belongs.

Take Amnesty International ‘s recommended URGENT ACTION  and urge Iranian authorities to stop the execution of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall.


Save an Innocent Man From Death: 7 Causes in 7 Days

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada, Farah Mawani, Founder, Farahway Global, and Maryam Nayeb Yazdi, Coordinator, Saeed Malekpour Campaign

The first political prisoner campaign I got involved in after Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer were released on September 21, 2011, was the Free Saeed Malekpour campaign. Saeed is a 36 year old Canadian permanent resident, who was arrested in Iran in October 2008, a few days after he had arrived from Canada to visit his ill father.  Saeed’s father died from a brain tumor shortly after Saeed was imprisoned.

Saeed was sentenced to death on October 2010. The only evidence used to condemn Saeed to death are false confessions he gave two years ago while subjected to physical and psychological torture. Iran’s Supreme Court subsequently repealed his death sentence due to discrepancies in his case file. The Supreme Court mandated the Revolutionary Court to conduct a full judicial review into the discrepancies. Despite that ruling, the Revolutionary Court reinstated Saeed’s death sentence in November 2011, and the Supreme Court upheld it.

According to Ann Harrison, Amnesty International‘s interim Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa,

“By confirming Saeed Malekpour’s death sentence after an unfair trial, the Iranian authorities are sending a message to Iranians not to freely express their views, or even to help others to do so, including on the internet.”

Credit: Free Saeed Campaign

I learned of the renewed urgency of Saeed’s case from Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed, based on her experience of being arrested in Iran at age 16 and imprisoned for two years. I met her at a moving talk she gave in Toronto about “living through trauma, and the power of telling one’s story.”

I bought her first book during the imprisonment of Josh, Shane and Sarah, but could not bring myself to read it.  I was traumatized enough knowing that Josh was being held hostage in Evin prison that I feared what knowing the details of his imprisonment would do to me.  I feared being in so much pain that I would be unable to fight for his freedom.

It was very healing for me to feel such an instant connection with Marina because of our overlapping experiences, and to hear her great joy about the final freedom for Josh, Shane, Sarah and all of us who fought so hard for them through our intense pain. She urged me to get involved in the campaigns of Canadian citizens and permanent residents on death row in Iran.  As a Canadian citizen myself, speaking out for fellow Canadians, felt like a necessary next step.

Marina connected me with Maryam Nayeb Yazdi, a human rights activist who coordinates the campaign to free Saeed.  Maryam and I also connected very easily through our overlapping experiences and shared passion for justice. She too was compelled to fight for Saeed as a fellow Canadian. She told me that she was grateful to have the opportunity to learn from my experience with the Free the Hikers campaign.  It was heartwarming for me to hear that something constructive could come from such a traumatic time for me. It was even more heartwarming for me to hear her say,

“The release of Sarah, Shane, and Josh from Evin gave me hope that we could do the same for Saeed and the hundreds of others unlawfully imprisoned in Iran.”

 Soon after I started sharing news about Saeed’s case on my online platforms, I received a joint invitation from Maryam and the International Centre for Human Rights in Iran (ICHR) to speak at a rally for Saeed outside the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa.

Ardeshir Zarezadeh (right) stands beside fellow activists at rally for Saeed outside Iranian Embassy, Ottawa

When I asked Ardeshir Zarezadeh, Executive Director of ICHR, to explain what compels him to fight for Saeed, he cited the false accusations and grave injustices against Saeed, along with his grossly unfair trial and false confessions made under torture. It was clear that he has grown accustomed to defending Saeed. I sensed that he was driven by something much more personal, as so many in the Iranian diaspora are. I asked if he was comfortable sharing his personal motivations. He told me that he knew what being imprisoned in Iran felt like. He was arrested 12 times and spent two years in solitary confinement there.

 “I was in jail and I know how hard it is staying in solitary confinement and being tortured for false confession. When a prisoner gets tortured while in a cell without any connection [to the outside world], its the end of their world.”

I fought with every cell in my body to ensure that Josh, Shane and Sarah knew they were not alone and I am compelled to do the same for Saeed. As I said in my statement outside the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa,

“Like Josh, Shane and Sarah, Saeed needs us to be the voice that is being stolen from him. He needs us to fight for the human rights he is being denied.  He needs us to fight for his life. The life that will be taken from him if we are silent.”

Please add your voice to mine.  Please contact the Prime Minister of Canada and ask him to intervene in Saeed Malekpour’s case. Join Farahway Global on Facebook and Twitter for further calls for action and the latest updates regarding his case.

Thank you.

This post is the second in a series of seven posts to mark 7 months of FREEDOM for Josh, Shane, Sarah and all of us who fought so hard for their freedom. Each post will feature one cause that I am currently working on through Farahway Global and encourage you to support the cause with concrete actions. Stay tuned for the rest of the series focused on human rights and mental health issues.

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