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The Power of the Individual to Create Change: LitMod Connects with Refugee Asylum Seeker Behrouz Boochani through Literature

By: Emily Varsava
November 20, 2019

On October 4, 2019, using Zoom video conferencing, LitMod students interviewed journalist, poet, and writer Behrouz Boochani and his translator, Omid Tofighian, about their book, No Friends But The Mountains, a text written almost exclusively via WhatsApp messenger. Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian social activist, was incarcerated on Manus Island in 2013 after trying to seek asylum in Australia, and contacted Iranian Australian journalist Tofighian with a smuggled phone. Boochani endured six years of confinement and torture in Manus Prison; following the closure of the Australian offshore detention centre in 2017, he remained in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (PNG).

It was from PNG that Boochani graciously called in to the class at 2 a.m., along with co-writer Tofighian, from Cairo, Egypt, at a more reasonable 6 p.m., to discuss their collaborative text and its imperative process in creating a new language to discuss the image of the refugee. A group of fourteen graduate students anxiously and earnestly researched for weeks to prepare thought-provoking questions about the writing process for the interview.

It is not often that as students we receive the chance to speak with authors about the books we study, let alone a famed writer and activist, but as a class we rose to the occasion. We collaborated on several questions ranging from the translation process and the careful use of language to social activism. In pairs, each student had the opportunity to pose their prepared question and received generous and profound answers from both Behrouz and Tofighian to an enraptured audience. The event was a success, but the take-away leaves us with a powerful impact and call to action. In response to our posed question regarding how we can enact real social change outside of the discussion, Tofighian urges everyone to consider how education about refugees can be implemented at a younger age. Boochani ended the conversation encouraging students to challenge systems by exposing them deeply through art and literature because words are so powerful. We need only look to Boochani as inspiration for the power of the individual. As for me, this is the opportunity I have always hoped to have. I think I speak on behalf of all of us when I say that we can take what we learn and read in the classroom and execute it into our futures, be that as academics, teachers, publishers, or otherwise; we do have the power to make a difference.

As of November 13, Boochani has left PNG and is currently residing in New Zealand, with plans that he will never return to PNG or Australian immigration detention. Details about his permanent residency have yet to be determined, as he is on a one-month visa, but we are thrilled to hear that he has been freed. After so many years, he is inevitably exhausted, but Boochani continues to be the voice of those incarcerated on Manus Island.

The students in Literatures of Modernity 2019-20 extend their gratitude to the department for this rare opportunity, with special thanks to Professor Nima Naghibi, without whose constant dedication the successful event would have never been possible. Dr. Naghibi created the innovative course “Modernity’s Others” to focus on the figure of the refugee, one of the most prevalent crises of our time, to engage with the realities of crossing borders. The course focuses on first-hand experiences with refugee writers in collaboration with PEN Canada and Ryerson University Faculty of Art’s Community-Engaged Learning and Teaching Office.