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Kingston writers group sponsors Syrian authors

The Saeed family at Kingston City Hall (photo: Ray Aryle)

The Saeed family at Kingston City Hall (Deborah Windsor)

A group of writers in Kingston‚ Ontario, is doing its part to aid in the current international refugee crisis‚ and to support authors persecuted overseas.

The Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee welcomed accomplished Syrian writer and publishing executive Jamal Saeed to Canada on Dec. 28‚ along with his wife, Rufaida al Khabbaz‚ a poet and translator‚ and their teenaged sons, Ghamr and Taim. With the help of organizations like PEN Canada‚ the International Cities of Refuge Network‚ and the West Kingston Refugee Partnership‚ the committee discovered the Saeeds and managed to sponsor them with a $40,000 grant from the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Letters.

“It goes back to those pictures of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned. I was in touch with some other writers here in Kingston and felt very strongly that we needed to do something‚” says committee member Ray Argyle. “We received a grant on the basis that we’d bring over a writer refugee. And as writers ourselves, we understand that writers are at especially high risk for imprisonment, torture, and death. So we looked for a writer to sponsor through PEN Canada.”

The committee was particularly touched by the story of the Saeeds‚ who had sought asylum in Dubai; Jamal was incarcerated for 12 years for advocating democracy‚ and after his release‚ the family faced threats of kidnapping and worse.

Through their other vocations – a retired principal and an apartment building owner among them – the Kingston writers were able to arrange appropriate housing‚ education‚ and employment-seeking opportunities for the family. Ghamr and Taim will enroll directly into regular high school‚ while their parents attend English classes and seek part-time work to complement their writing – Jamal is already working on a book about his story‚ tentatively called Out of Syria: The Road From Damascus. On Jan. 12 they’ll see Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak at a local town hall meeting‚ with the aim to meet him.

Argyle says that after the Saeeds are settled‚ the committee may look into sponsoring another refugee writer in the future. “It’s in the back of our minds and is certainly a possibility. Everything went smoothly and everything’s organized‚ [but] I’m sure the Saeeds will have issues that arise. … We want to get through that first‚ then we can give some thought to what else we might do‚” he says. “[Having them] for a week at our house was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I wish all Canadians could share the feeling and privilege of helping a family to a safe life.”