York student seeks to improve lives of refugees

By Elaine Smith

After graduating from York this spring, Tegan Hadisi, the daughter of Iranian refugees, will apply what she learned at the University to further study and assist migrants, contributing to a better future for them.

Hadisi’s academic pursuit of refugee studies is inspired, in part, by personal experience. She was born stateless in Turkey, after her parents left Iran, and came to Canada as a toddler. Growing up, she observed the challenges her parents faced learning a new language, finding employment and gaining financial security before finding their feet.

Tegan Hadisi
Tegan Hadisi

“I can only imagine what it is like to be successful in your own country, then be unable to translate your skills when you come somewhere new due to language and finances,” said Hadisi, who heads to the University of Oxford this fall.

Hadisi also struggled. Like many children of the diaspora, she felt stuck between two worlds, never feeling 100 per cent part of the community where she lived, and longing for her parents’ home country even though she never really knew it.

While earning her undergraduate degree at Western University in art history and museum studies, Hadisi’s understanding of the refugee experience led her to serve as president of Western’s chapter of World University Services Canada, an organization that provides refugee students scholarships to attend university in Canada. During the Syrian refugee crisis, “We had an influx of refugees to campus in one year. It was a really unique opportunity to connect to other lived histories,” she said.

“I realized the importance of higher education and access for historically oppressed and minoritized people. I thought about what I could do with this experience.”

Hadisi chose to enroll in York’s Centre for Refugee Studies, which, since its inception in 1988, has been recognized as an international leader in the creation, mobilization, and dissemination of new knowledge that addresses forced migration issues in local, national and global contexts. There she worked towards her second bachelor’s degree, with an honours specialization in human rights and equity studies and a certificate in migration and refugee studies.

During that time, Hadisi volunteered at Matthew House, an organization that offers a range of support services to help refugee claimants establish new lives in Canada. She supervised mock refugee hearings, preparing claimants for the experience. Her ultimate goal was to attend graduate school somewhere with a centre for refugee and migration studies that published solid research. Yvonne Su, an assistant professor in the Department of Equity Studies, encouraged her to apply to the University of Oxford to earn her MPhil in development studies, confident Hadisi would excel there.

“Tegan shows tremendous potential as a scholar,” said Su. “She has exemplary interdisciplinary research skills, strong critical thinking skills and strong academic writing capabilities. In addition, she is passionate about studying topics of displacement and refuge. She has what it takes to succeed at Oxford and I look forward to seeing where her studies will take her.”

Hadisi applied. “Sometimes, you need someone else to tell you just how capable you are,” she said.

While taking a morning walk in early March, she decided to take a quick look at her phone while standing at a street corner and noticed one from Oxford. She assumed it was simply spam until she opened it to find an acceptance letter.

“I was stunned,” Hadisi said. “It must have showed on my face, because a passerby came up to ask me if I was all right.”

Her two-year program at Oxford will begin with courses, followed by research and a thesis. Hadisi is not quite sure where she’s headed, but she is confident that she’ll discover many options. She loves research, but “My goal is to stay connected with the actual experiences of migrants and refugees, not to just sit behind a desk.”

One thing of which Hadisi is certain is that she’s committed to aiding refugees and migrants. Her passion reflects York’s vision of building a better future and creating positive change, as set forth in the University Academic Plan, along with its commitment to advancing global engagement.

“Refugees are so deeply connected to my own identity, and the work feels so important,” Hadisi said. “If I don’t do this, who will? Who is prioritizing these people? All the dehumanizing rhetoric is so inhumane and I can’t stand by and watch it happen.”

“Working with migrants and refugees is a mutual relationship and I feel so fortunate to be part of the process. What we get in return is just as important as what we give, and we have so much to learn from people who continue to be oppressed.”

As for her time at York, Hadisi is grateful. “York offered a fantastic opportunity to pursue the things I cared about and I knew I needed to take the leap,” she said. “I blinked and two years went by because I had such an incredible time at York. I made good friends and had incredibly inspiring professors; York will always have a special place in my heart.”

York anthropology professor marks Ugandan Asian expulsion with panel session, podcasts

Book covers: We Are All Birds of Uganda, Where The Air Is Sweet, Orange for the Sunsets

This September marked the 50th anniversary of the Ugandan Asian expulsion and Canada’s resettlement of nearly 7,500 refugees – exiled by dictator Idi Amin – between 1972-74; it also marked the anniversary of the commencement of Amin’s mass murder of over 500,000 Ugandan Africans.

In honour of those who endured these tragedies, the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival and Carleton University introduce the public panel “No New Land? With Tina Athaide, Tasneem Jamal, and Hafsa Zayyan,” to be hosted by York University Professor Zulfikar Hirji on Nov. 14.

Zulfikar Hirji
Zulfikar Hirji

Hirji, who experienced the expulsion and resettlement when he was a child, will be joined by three authors who have written fictional stories of loss, longing and belonging, each set in the historical context of the expulsion.

Click here to livestream the event.

In collaboration with the three authors, Hirji has also produced a series of podcasts with the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival, which debuted on Nov. 8.

The panel and podcasts each comprise the inaugural event of the larger conference, “Beyond Resettlement: Exploring the History of the Ugandan Asian Community in Exile,” hosted by Carleton and co-organized by Hirji. The conference engages communities, scholars and government policymakers to consider not only the expulsion and immediate arrival of immigrants but the longer-term impacts of resettlement.

“Beyond Resettlement” will include a series of community forums and workshops in which affected community members will have the opportunity to tell their stories and add to the Uganda Collection, an archive on the expulsion and its aftermath.

Podcast episode 1: We Are All Birds of Uganda with Hafsa Zayyan

Award-winning writer, trial lawyer and hobbyist painter Hafsa Zayyan – who is of Nigerian and Pakistani descent – is the author of We Are All Birds of Uganda (2021).

In this episode, Zayyan describes overcoming writer’s block by immersing herself in research on the expulsion of Ugandan Asians. In researching and travelling to Uganda, Zayyan was amazed by the ways in which – even coming from a half South-Asian and half West-African family – her education failed to inform her on the experiences of Ugandan Asians.

Episode 2: Where The Air Is Sweet With Tasneem Jamal

Tasneem Jamal – a non-fiction book editor, contributor to The Globe and Mail and communications officer – is the author of Where The Air Is Sweet (2018).

Jamal’s book is heavily inspired by her personal experiences as a child, having fled from Uganda to Kenya, England, Canada and even back to Uganda at one point. She recounts vivid memories, like that of having crossed paths with Idi Amin at a hotel swimming pool in Uganda’s capital Kampala, and compares the abrupt banishment of Ugandan Asians to the wreck of the Titanic.

“Survivors talked about being on the Titanic that night, as it was sinking, being told that they need to get off the ship and onto these rickety little lifeboats,” Jamal said. “Intellectually they knew it was sinking but they couldn’t, viscerally, believe it.”

Episode 3: Orange for the Sunsets With Tina Athaide

In the third and final episode of the series, writer and teacher Tina Athaide, author of Orange for the Sunsets (2019), offers a new perspective on how to remember and honour the Ugandan Asian expulsion.

With the initial goal of making a picture book for young children, Athaide discusses working with her editor, who eventually told her “there’s so much material here, put it into a middle-grade book, a novel.”

Now, having toured to classrooms around the world with her book, Athaide recognizes the unique opportunity that storytelling for a young audience presents – as students return home from school with a new curiosity for their family’s culture, or that of a classmate.

Skills development program highlighted by provincial government

Representatives from NEW, representatives from Schulich ExecEd, Sister2Sister ALP participants, and Minister Monte McNaughton

A skills development program at Schulich ExecEd that bridges the gap between employer needs and newcomer women’s skills was recently highlighted by the provincial government.

On Oct. 3, Schulich ExecEd joined Newcomer Women’s Services Toronto (NEW) in a meeting with the Minister of Labour, Immigrant, Training and Skills Development, Monte McNaughton, where the topic of discussion was the Sister2Sister Advanced Leadership Program (ALP).

Representatives from NEW, representatives from Schulich ExecEd, Sister2Sister ALP participants, and Minister Monte McNaughton
Representatives from NEW, representatives from Schulich ExecEd, Sister2Sister ALP participants, and Minister Monte McNaughton

The Sister2Sister Advanced Leadership program (ALP) is a skills and leadership development program that bridges the gap between employer needs and newcomer women skills through an intensive training in soft and hard skills capped by a paid internship. Offered in partnership with Schulich ExecEd, a strategic business unit within York University’s Schulich School of Business.

The centrepiece of the program is a foundational Project Management certificate – a highly condensed certification that provides go-to strategic market plans, employment readiness, career coaching and a paid internship. Graduates of this program earn a micro-credential from a top-tier Canadian business school. 

Earlier this year, NEW and the Sisters2Sisters ALP received funding from the ministry through its $90-million Skills Development Fund program.

The Oct. 3 meeting included feedback from program participants, who shared their experiences with the unique and interactive program structure. Through this program, Schulich ExecEd offers racialized newcomer women opportunities to (re)build their leadership capacity, supporting these women’s upskilling, upward mobility, and economic resilience.  

“Immigrants make our province stronger and our culture richer. Our government is proud to invest in programs that give newcomer women the skills to find meaningful jobs in their communities, lead purpose-driven lives, and grow Ontario’s economy for everyone,” said McNaughton. 

Funding from the ministry enabled support for 75 immigrant and refugee women through comprehensive skills and leadership development training, said Sara Asalya, executive director of NEW.

Sandi Martyn, a Schulich ExecEd instructor, said: “Project management training is needed in every industry, and this was an opportunity to provide a skill that would benefit our newcomer women, helping them become confident and settled in our communities.

“I met so many intelligent, courageous, dedicated and hard-working women,” continued Martyn. “They valued their training and overcame every challenge to attend the sessions. It became so much more than project management training. It became a caring, supportive network of women – truly a Sister2Sister experience.” 

Since the Sisters2Sister ALP launched in the Summer of 2022, Schulich ExecEd has helped create direct pathways to the Canadian labour market for 75 immigrant and refugee women, seeing more than 84 per cent of the pilot program graduates securing employment in line with their previous skills.

NEW and Schluch ExecEd will be using the funds from the last round of ministry funding to expland the program and align it with the target audiences, described as “people with prior involvement in the criminal justice system, at-risk youth, those with disabilities, Ukrainian newcomers, and others facing barriers to employment.”

The Sisters2Sister ALP is now accepting applications for its third cohort. Visit the website for more information.

Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health presents two events in October

global health

The Dahdaleh Institute continues its Global Health Research Seminar Series for the 2022-23 academic year with two events in October.

All talks will be delivered in hybrid format. Everyone is welcome. Attendees will join global health leaders, researchers, practitioners and students and during the series, they will have an opportunity to learn about the important collaborative and transdisciplinary research happening at the Dahdaleh Institute (in the thematic research areas of Planetary Health, Global Health & Humanitarianism, and Global Health Foresighting).

The full schedule of events is available at https://www.yorku.ca/dighr/events/.

Wednesday, Oct. 5, 1 p.m. EDT
Computer Modelling in the Assessment of the Health Impacts of Climate Change in Malawi, with Mohammadali Tofighi

In this seminar, Mohammadali Tofighi, a postdoctoral research Fellow at York University, will introduce an agent-based computer model for studying the health impacts of climate changes in the Lake Chilwa Basin. He will present an overview of the model’s features and capabilities and discuss the challenges in developing and verifying the model and the road map that could be used to address these challenges.

Malawi is a land-locked country in the south of Africa. Malawi, and particularly the Chilwa Basin in the south of Malawi, has been highly affected by global climate change over the past few decades. The region has seen a range of devastating climate shocks, and their frequency is increasing. The most prominent shocks are irregular rainfall, drought, prolonged dry periods, and high winds. The changing climate has significant negative impacts on the economy and human health, including population displacement, disruptions in the delivery of healthcare services, increasing prevalence of infectious diseases, and both acute and chronic malnutrition.

The Dahdaleh Institute’s complex adaptive modelling project aims to understand and shed light on the relationship between climate change and health impacts (infectious diseases: malaria, cholera, schistosomiasis, and acute diarrheal disease) and food security in the Lake Chilwa Basin.

Computer simulation models are increasingly being proposed as efficient tools for predicting variations in climate indicators. Recently, they have been used to study the variety of impacts of climate change. They can provide a safe environment for researchers, decision-makers, policymakers, and other stakeholders to examine different scenarios of climate change and to monitor the impacts and evaluate solutions, prevention methods, and adaptation interventions.

Tofighi holds a PhD in civil engineering in water resources management from Sharif University of Technology, Iran. He has worked as an adjunct assistant professor at the Sharif University of Technology and assistant professor at the Ale-Taha Institute of Higher Education, Iran. He has has expertise in water resources management, particularly water-related disaster management and modelling. He has participated in numerous multidisciplinary projects in flood modelling, disaster management, health care modelling, and risk analysis. He is interested in integrating simulation approaches such as agent-based and discrete events modelling, system dynamics, and machine learning methods for a better understanding of the behaviour of the systems.

Read more and register to attend.

Wednesday, Oct. 19, 1 p.m. EDT
Migrant Buses, Trochas, and the Darién Gap: The Venezuelan Refugee Crisis, with Yvonne Su and Gerson Scheidweiler

Since 2014, 6.8 million Venezuelans have fled the country due to economic, political, and social collapse, making this the world’s second-largest external displacement crisis. Venezuelans are often forced to take dangerous routes –through trochas (informal trails guarded by paramilitary or gangs) and the Darién Gap (a deadly trek through Panama’s jungle) – to reach host countries. When they are received, they face other challenges, especially accessing health care and employment, as well as suffering violence and discrimination. Yet, despite these unprecedented numbers and the risks displaced Venezuelans have to take, international funding for the crisis is severely lacking, and now Venezuelan refugees are being weaponized in the United States by Republicans who are bussing refugees across state lines under false pretences.

Yvonne Su and Gerson Scheidweiler will provide an overview of the Venezuelan refugee crisis and discuss the experiences of LGBT Venezuelan refugees in Brazil, particularly those in Pacaraima, Boa Vista, and Manaus.

Su is faculty Fellow of the Dahdaleh Institute and an assistant professor in the Department of Equity Studies at York University. She is an expert on forced migration, queer migration, climate refugees, and post-disaster recovery. She currently holds three SSHRC grants that examine the Venezuelan refugee crisis and compare local, national, and international responses to LGBT Venezuelan refugees in Colombia and Brazil.

Scheidweiler is a postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Equity Studies at York University. He is an expert on gender, communication policies, human rights, and sexual health. His postdoctoral research explores the extent to which local, national, and international responses to receive and integrate Venezuelan refugees in Brazil have taken into account the sexual health of vulnerable populations (e.g., women and LGBTQI+ migrants).

Read more and register to attend.

Asylum data visualizations present graphic depiction of flow of refugees

FEATURED image Research theses

Creating the asylum data visualizations, available on YouTube, required a unique combination of legal, coding and data aggregation skills, said Professor Sean Rehaag, director of the Refugee Law Lab (RLL). Research assistant Matthew Tran, who combines those skills, played an instrumental role in bringing the project to life.

“For this project specifically, my legal background helped with discussions between myself and Sean about what data was appropriate to include to provide a clear picture of what we were trying to convey through the data visualization,” said Tran.

“For the Refugee Law Lab at large,” he added, “my legal and process knowledge of refugee law from my experiences working in different legal clinics and community organizations has also been helpful during lab discussions relating to projects/resources that are being created for legal practitioners to use.” 

The federal government imposed a visa requirement on visitors from Mexico in 2009 after it became Canada’s top source of refugee claims. Those claims totalled 9,000 that year. The visa requirement prompted a sudden drop in claims.

Tran used the Python programming language, commonly used in data science, to access APIs (application programming interfaces) that automatically downloaded refugee data from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. He then used Python packages to produce moving graphs. The RLL is now making the code available for the use of other researchers.

“I think what’s interesting is trying to understand patterns and outcomes in the legal process using data and code rather than standard doctrinal legal methods,” said Rehaag.

“We’ve put out data before, but not visual representations,” he added. “Our hope is this would be the first of several attempts to make it more accessible.”

Over the 20-year period, he noted, refugee flows to Canada have been influenced by global conflicts and crises, but also domestic political trends and changes in immigration policy and processes.

The animated bar graph (below) depicting changes in the top 15 asylum source countries in Canada shows that Mexico overtook Pakistan as the leading source of asylum seekers as early as 2006.

Refugee claims from Mexicans increased when the federal government again removed the visa requirement in December 2016.

Over the same 2000-20 period, the Immigration and Refugee Board’s recognition rate for refugees dropped as low as about 42 per cent, rising to 68 per cent around 2016. The visualization also portrays the trend in the cumulative total of asylum applications over that period.  

By 2020, the top two source countries for asylum seekers to Canada, based on the cumulative total of asylum applications, were Mexico with 58,149 and Colombia, with 35,859. Those two were followed by China, Nigeria, Pakistan, Haiti, India, Hungary, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Iran, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan and Venezuela.

McLaughlin College a community partner for Human Rights Watch Canada Film Festival  

film clapper

McLaughlin College is one of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRWFF) community partners. The festival will hold screenings of five documentaries and will take place at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema from May 26 to 29.  

The five documentaries are:  

The Klabona Keepers 
The Klabona Keepers is an intimate portrait of the dynamic Indigenous community that succeeded in protecting the remote Sacred Headwaters, known as the Klabona, in northwest British Columbia from industrial activities. 
Tamo Campos, a York University master’s of environmental studies student, is the documentary director. 

March For Dignity  
This film follows a small group of brave LGBTI+ activists in Tbilisi, Georgia, as they attempt to conduct the first Pride march in the country, where homosexuality remains highly stigmatized.  

Mujer de Soldado (Soldier’s Woman) 
Mujer de Soldado is a deeply moving picture of female solidarity that finally provides space for the dignity of women’s experiences that has long been denied. 

Tacheles -The Heart of the Matter 
Three generations removed from the Holocaust, Yaar is a young Jewish Berliner desperate to leave the past behind. 

The Last Shelter 
Deep in Mali, in West Africa on the edge of the Sahel Desert, lies the peaceful city of Gao – a quiet way station for passersby with their eyes set on Europe in hopes of finding opportunity, safety and a better future. The Last Shelter is an emotional portrait of this town and the generous people who live in it. 

Human Rights Watch Film Festival logo

All five documentaries will be made available for digital viewing from May 30 to June 2. Each of these films addresses some of the most pressing human rights issues from across the globe. 

“Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s most recognized and respected human rights protection agencies and its annual film festival features award-winning documentaries that illustrate the human rights struggles that people are forced to confront daily. They are not only revealing, insightful but, above all, educative,” says Head of McLaughlin College James C. Simeon. “McLaughlin College is proud to be one of the many Community Partners for this year’s Human Rights Film Festival.” 

For more than 40 years, Human Rights Watch has defended people at risk of abuse by investigating abuses scrupulously, exposing the facts widely, and relentlessly pressing those in power for change that respects people’s rights. Their researchers examine situations in 90 countries around the world, functioning as investigators, journalists and advocates. 

Recently marking its 30th anniversary and currently screening films in more than 20 cities around the world, HRWFF bears witness to human rights violations in direct storytelling and exposé form. They create a forum for courageous individuals on both sides of the lens to empower audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference. Tickets for the film festival are free of charge and can be reserved here. For more information, visit the Human Rights Watch website.  

Professor Emerita receives Jackie Kirk Outstanding Book Award  

young woman reads a book

Borderless Higher Education for Refugees: Lessons from the Dadaab Refugee Camps, co-edited by Professor Emerita and Senior Scholar Wenona Giles at York University’s Department of Anthropology, earned the Jackie Kirk Outstanding Book Award from the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES).  

Wenona Giles headshot
Wenona Giles

Giles, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Resident Research Associate at the Centre for Refugee Studies at the University, accepted the award at a virtual awards ceremony alongside her co-editor Lorrie Miller, associate director for the Institute for Veterans Education and Transition in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. 

The Jackie Kirk Award is an annual award that recognizes a published book reflecting one or some of the varied areas of expertise represented in Kirk’s areas of commitment, primarily gender and education and/or education in conflict (fragile states, post-conflict, peace education). Kirk was also committed to working on identity (particularly of girls and teachers), globalization as a context for local practice, and visual participatory research methodologies. 

Book cover for Borderless Higher Education for Refugees: Lessons from the Dadaab Refugee Camps
Book cover

“On behalf of all the chapter contributors, we are honoured and excited to receive the Jackie Kirk Award for the book Borderless Higher Education for Refugees: Lessons from the Dadaab Refugee Camps. I didn’t know Dr. Kirk although I do feel an intellectual kinship with her and the goals she strove to achieve and the life she lived to achieve them,” said Giles. 

During the ceremony, Giles also read an excerpt from the book. “The refugee camp as a university campus – that was the dream. This book tells the story of university partners in Canada and Kenya who collaborated in the development and delivery of tuition-free academic programs for refugees living in two of the largest refugee camps in the world, Dadaab and Kakuma. Was the endeavour successful? Was it worthwhile? And if so, for whom?” 

The book describes how higher education is increasingly recognized as crucial for the livelihoods of refugees and displaced populations caught in emergencies and protracted crises to enable them to engage in a contemporary, knowledge-based, global society. It tells the story of the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) project which delivers tuition-free university degree programs into two of the largest protracted refugee camps in the world, Dadaab and Kakuma in Kenya. Combining a human rights approach, critical humanitarianism and concern with gender relations and intersecting inequalities, the book proposes that higher education can provide refugees with the possibility of staying put or returning home with dignity. Written by academics based in Canada, Kenya, Somalia and the U.S., as well as NGO workers and students from the camps, the book demonstrates how north-south and south-south collaborations are possible and productive.  

The award funds, along with all book royalties, have been contributed to the support of university students in refugee camps in Kenya. 

BHER is a York-based project now hosted by the Faculty of Education. BHER works to provide accredited university programs to working, untrained refugees and local teachers where they are. The project focuses on education for refugees caught in extended exile in the global south for more than 15 years, living in an underserved region where resources and support for learning are scarce. 

For more information about the book, visit the Bloomsbury Publishing website

Anthropology Professor Zulfikar Hirji featured in opera-film ‘BOUND’  

Against the Grain Theatre announces new Opera-Film 'BOUND'

Aiming to use the power of storytelling and music to address the many barriers Canadian newcomers and marginalized people face in their daily lives, the film questions “How welcoming are we as a country, as a city, as a community?”  

BOUND’s libretto is written by AtG’s Founding Artistic Director Joel Ivany, whose lyrics explore social issues interwoven with the stories told by Hirji, Dr. Nadiya Vasdani, Cindy Rivers and Raina Younes who reflect on the challenging and different journeys they have endured to find their place and voice in Canada. Ivany is joined by Reneltta Arluk, director of Indigenous Arts, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity as co-director. 

BOUND features four stories told by Zulfikar Hirji, Raina Younes, Dr. Nadiya Vasdani and Cindy Rivers.
BOUND features four stories told by Zulfikar Hirji, Raina Younes, Dr. Nadiya Vasdani and Cindy Rivers

Hirji immigrated to Canada from Uganda in the 1970s as a political refugee only to face the barriers of racism in his new homeland. This is the first time Hirji has shared his personal story with a large audience. 

“A traumatic experience can’t necessarily be expressed in words,” he says. “There is a gap in research literature on how marginalized populations come to Canada and deal with the aftermath of their arrival, and I am at the age now to think it through and find the vocabulary to finally talk about it which I couldn’t do in the past. Watching what is happening in Canada today and seeing things we need to tackle as society and nation… I am in a place to give a voice and something someone who is just arriving might not be able to do. By providing language, vocabulary, the words, maybe others can find comfort that they are not alone.”  

In the film, Hirji recalls being reminded by others at a young age that he was different or did not “fit in” because of his religious beliefs, traditions and life values. Facing aggression, violence and self-doubt, Hirji notes his story is similar to those who have also faced hardship because of their race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality and yet stories are unheard because they are not included or shared in Canadian studies and history curriculum or openly shared by those who have endured similar hardship along their journey. 

Scene from the opera-film BOUND. This is the first time Professor Zulfikar Hirji (pictured above) has shared his personal story with a large audience. 
Scene from the opera-film BOUND. This is the first time Professor Zulfikar Hirji (pictured above) has shared his personal story with a large audience 

In the film Hirji expresses, “when we came to Canada in 1972, I don’t think there was a vocabulary that we have today to speak about identity. Especially because I grew up in a small suburb in Vancouver, it was a pretty white place and I only realized that once someone started identifying me as not white, and that sort of identity became so fixed in my mind that I didn’t look like people around me at school and I didn’t speak the same languages and so I think all of the sudden you realize that you’re quite significantly different from the people around you and you have a different way of seeing the world than they do and I think that’s when you’re starting to question what your identity is.”  

Telling these stories in the form of an opera-film provides an opportunity to reach an audience that may not particularly be speaking about these issues as traditional storytelling has been more commonly used in the past. Hirji collaborated with AtG over the past six years, sharing his research expertise as an anthropologist and social historian to assist the creative process. “I was actually quite surprised when they asked if I would tell my own story on screen,” he said. Hirji also mentions he uses the arts extensively in his anthropology courses throughout the years to help student explore complex social and cultural issues and consider new modalities through which to conduct, communicate and disseminate ethnographically grounded research. 

“If we are going to make any impact, through research we have to be aware of ways in which people are absorbing information today and take it into consideration,” notes Hirji. “I intend to use BOUND in my graduate course in September and invite AtG to workshop ‘ethnographic-opera,’ an exciting new form of ethnography. If we want research to have longevity, we need to be aware of how we use new modalities to share our stories as they have resonance and are here to stay by experimenting and finding opportunities that are also respectful to academic research standards.”   

Hirji also carries a musical background as a trained classical musician for 18 years. Tuned into AtG’s thinking, creativity and insight into questions related to Canada’s inclusivity, he expresses admiration for the artists who are using music to magnify sensory experience and emotions  that cannot easily be conveyed through text alone.  

Storyteller Zulfikar Hirji (left) and Baritone, John Welsh (right). Scene from the opera-film BOUND.
Storyteller Zulfikar Hirji (left) and Baritone, John Welsh (right). Scene from the opera-film BOUND

BOUND composer Kevin Lau takes inspiration from George Frideric Handel’s music to create a score for the BOUND film anchored with assurance by the mighty sounds of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nathan Brock to mirror the transformation of the four storytellers featured in the film. 

The stories find life in song form through the singing of Juno-nominated soprano Miriam Khalil, tenor Andrew Haji, baritone Justin Welsh, and American trans woman and lyric soprano Breanna Sinclairé, who makes her Against the Grain Theatre and Canadian debut. 

While the film is connected through themes of alienation, adaptation and transformation, it also offers a unique perspective of resilience, strength and hope, challenging Canada’s narrative as a welcoming nation that celebrates diversity.  

Hirji notes that the University’s efforts in advancing equity, diversity and inclusion, also provides an opportunity for community support, which is more visible today than it was 15 years ago when he first arrived at York.  

“I think now, we are in a place in the university setting, perhaps even nationally, to be able to voice these complex realities, and these factors that led me to talk about my personal story,” says Hirji.  

BOUND will be streaming until April 24 and is free of charge. Registration is required.  

Photos by Against the Grain Theatre‘s Dylan Toombs

Anthropology Annual Lecture explores the migrant crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border

US Mexico border

The Department of Anthropology in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) presents this year’s Anthropology Annual Lecture on March 17 at 4:30 p.m. with anthropologist and academic Jason De León. 

Photo of Jason De León
Jason De León

Serving as the keynote speaker for the event, De León will discuss “The Land of Open Graves: Understanding the Current Politics of Migrant Life and Death along the U.S.-Mexico Border.” 

De León is a professor of anthropology and Chicana/o and Central American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He serves as executive director of the Undocumented Migration Project, a research-arts-education collective that seeks to document and raise awareness about the experiences of clandestine migrants. De León is also president of the board of directors for the Colibri Center for Human Rights, a non-profit that seeks to identify and repatriate the remains of people who have died while migrating through the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. He is also the author of the award-winning book The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail and is a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. 

In this presentation, De León will focus on what happens to the bodies of migrants who die in the desert. He argues the way bodies decompose in this environment is a form of hidden political violence that has deep ideological roots and demonstrates how the post-mortem destruction of migrant corpses creates devastating forms of long-lasting trauma. 

“We are excited to welcome Professor Jason De León as he shares his expertise on the experiences of migrants and the complex processes that occur after their untimely deaths. De León is a pathbreaking anthropologist whose research has had a transformative effect on the discipline and whose public-facing works continue to make a positive impact,” says Othon Alexandrakis, Department of Anthropology Chair and associate professor, LA&PS. 

This event is co-sponsored by Founders College and the Centre for Refugee Studies. The annual lecture is a leading event for the Department of Anthropology. The yearly address provides faculty, staff and students with a unique opportunity to meet eminent leaders in the field. 

All members of the York University community are welcome to attend this event. Registration is required. For more information on De León’s keynote speech, visit the Anthropology Annual Lecture Series webpage. 

Attend final event of this year’s BHER Speaker Series 

2021-2022 BHER Speaker Series

York University’s Faculty of Education, Centre for Refugee Studies and the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) Project will be hosting the final event of the 2021-22 BHER Speaker Series on Wednesday, March 16 at 9 a.m.

The event, “Higher Education in Comparative Perspective: Opportunities and Challenges” will explore the global access to post-secondary education and how it has expanded significantly over the past two decades. It will also highlight international higher education becoming an increasingly connected and competitive sector.  

Poster for the BHER event, material in the story duplicates the poster text
2021-2022 BHER Speaker Series March 16 event poster

This BHER Speaker Series event will welcome a panel of academic administrators and higher education experts involved in a range of internationalization efforts. They will discuss the opportunities and challenges to expanding higher educational access across borders and consider the possibilities for, and constraints to transnational higher education partnership. They will also bring attention to how public and private universities have become spaces for transnational engagement and despite the global growth in post-secondary enrolment, how there remain to be significant disparities in who can access higher education within and across national borders. 

The panel includes Samson Madera Nashon, head of the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia (UBC); Donald Kisilu Kombo, an associate professor and dean at the School of Education at Kenyatta University; Fouzia Warsame, deputy chief of party – policy, curriculum and government liaison for the Bar ama Baro program at Creative Associates International; and Kerry Bystrom, an associate dean, and associate professor of English and human rights at Bard College Berlin. 

Moderators of the event are Philemon Misoy, project liaison officer at BHER, and Rachel Silver, assistant professor at the Faculty of Education. 

This event is a part of the BHER Speaker Series 2021-22 Reciprocal Learning Beyond Crisis. The BHER Speaker Series remains the first of its kind hosted at the Faculty of Education that equally features experts from York University and from institutions that are comprised of or work with refugees. 

To learn more about the panellists and join the virtual event, click here.