Journalists fleeing oppression lost in limbo

Mir Mahdavi fled a death sentence.  His so-called crime: battling corruption in an Afghan paper. Now he’s safe in Canada, shut out from his profession—and he’s not alone. This week we feature Mateo Stein‘s story from the summer issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. 

RRJBy 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.”

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? Read the whole story.