Kingston WritersFest panel shines light on on-going Afghan refugee crisis

This year’s Kingston WritersFest The Big Idea: Addressing a Crisis panel took on the current Afghan refugee crisis and Canada’s role in it. The panel was made up of (L to R): Hassan Al Kontar, Graeme Smith, Bilal Sarwary, and moderator Carol Off. All photos via Kingston WritersFest website.

The 13th annual Kingston WritersFest included a pertinent international issue as part of its virtual event, The Big Idea: Addressing a Crisis, discussing the ongoing crisis of Afghans seeking new homes while escaping violence in their previous ones. 

The virtual panel discussion was held over Zoom from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. Aara Macauley, the Artistic Director of the festival, started the event with land acknowledgments, introduced the panel’s theme, and handed proceedings over to the moderator, Carol Off, to introduce the panelists and start the discussion. 

Off is the author of All We Leave Behind: A Reporter’s Journey Into the Lives of Others. The panelists included a Syrian author, activist, and refugee, Hassan Al Kontar, author of Man at the Airport: How Social Media Saved My Life – One Syrian’s Story; Bilal Sarwary, an Afghan journalist who was based in Kabul until he had to fly his family out in search of a safer place and arrived in Canada three weeks ago, and; Graeme Smith, author, and journalist. The four held a discussion of Canada’s role and responsibility in helping refugees. 

The panel discussion began with Off giving reference to the poem Home by Warsan Shire, and quoted the verse from the poem, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” describing how hard it has been for Afghans or other refugees leaving their homes. And yet they had no other choice, due to the violent situation in their home countries. 

The event was mixed with emotions and eye-openers while the panelists shared their personal experiences and described how fortunate they feel to be the ones to migrate and change their lives for the better. They escaped harsh circumstances, and all of them are doing something in their capacities to help advocate and raise awareness about the problems refugees face. 

“I’m still working, an advocate for refugees. The Afghani people who are sending me messages and even the Canadian people and the American people who think that I could help in Afghanistan… It’s devastating and heartbreaking,” said Al Kontar.

The panelists also highlighted how Canada is one of the unique places that have events and groups that talk about the issues openly, while that is not the case in a lot of other countries. 

“I deal a lot with European diplomats, American diplomats; the conversations are very, very different inside a lot of other countries,” said Smith. 

“It’s really in Canada where we can have the luxury of having this kind of conversation, and it’s a conversation that really needs to start and really accelerate to keep up with global changes,” he added. 

Sarwary, who arrived in Canada three weeks ago with his parents, wife, and two-month-old daughter, shared that he named his daughter Sola, a Pashtu name that means “peace,” hoping there would be peace in Afghanistan one day. However, during the recent event of the Taliban sweeping into Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, he had no choice but to seek a better and peaceful home for his family after the government collapsed.  

“I think we must not, and we should not, turn our back on any of these situations, whether you talk about Afghanistan or the tragedy in Syria, or even the situation in Iraq, or all those years, because humanity must win, and we must help,” said Sarwary. 

Al Kantar also described how lucky he feels to have been able to remake his life in Canada. However, at the same time, he feels deeply for fellow affectees of the war and conflict who are still struggling and fear for their lives and their family’s lives every single day. 

The panel then had questions from the audience who were attending. One of the attendees asked a question about the best way to help people, other than sponsoring refugees. 

Al Kantar raised an essential element, addressing how more space is needed in Canadian media to introduce refugees, their parts of the world, their culture, and bridge the gap between the east and west. 

Off concluded the event with a gesture of hope that people could learn more about the refugees’ important issues and culture. She finished with the words “Welcome home,” bringing smiles to the faces of both panellists and attendees. 

Kingston WritersFest is an annual event with several paid and free events throughout the week-long festival. This year’s festival concluded on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021.

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