PEN Canada and George Brown College are pleased to announce this year’s writer-in-residence, Sohalia Khaliqyar. Sohalia arrived in Canada last year after fleeing her native Afghanistan where she was a journalist facing threats to her life. Her work focused on stories advocating for the rights of women and children. Welcome, Sohaila! Read PEN’s interview below to get to know yet another incredible member of our writers-in-exile community.
1. You have a degree in English literature and have worked as a photojournalist. How has photojournalism influenced your writing?
When I started in communications I often worked with national photographers whose work needed more of a narrative. Gathering details for the photos that we used on social media and the website, I learned that photography and writing need to work together in a digital environment, especially when it comes to reporting on people that we often don’t see because they live in inaccessible areas. I started photography to capture images that would enhance our reports, and illustrate stories and key messages on different social media platforms. Nowadays, social media and the speed of change in the ways we communicate force you to acquire these skills. They are vital if you want the best story.
2. Considering your background in both social media and teaching English to youth, how do you think social media affects our ability to tell and relate human stories, in particular for young people today?
Social media is a powerful tool for communication if used efficiently. It gives individuals the chance to say what they think at virtually no cost. Young people face none of the old restrictions from traditional media, geography and the pressure to conform to community expectations. They can really be themselves on social media, think for themselves and use the network to make the world a better place. However, in war torn countries like Afghanistan freedom of expression remains a dream for most young people.
3. You’ve been in Canada for just over a year, how are you adjusting to life here? What has been the biggest challenge, and the most pleasant surprise?
Being a refugee is not easy but in spite of all the challenges, I feel safe from the shadow of death which followed me constantly in Afghanistan, threatening my dreams and my life. I had to quit my job there, but I will not stop working for my community’s marginalized groups regardless of where I live and work. The world is my home. After my arrival in Canada, I started volunteer work with refugees immediately, so my days are busy. My nights are often nightmarish, filled with news of innocent people who are being killed in my old neighbourhoods: inside a children’s education centre, sport club, mosque, or on the street in Kabul. Sometimes when I do not hear from my family after an explosion I go check all those photos online to make sure my family and friends are safe. Those horrible photos and videos keep me awake for hours at night.
As a newcomer to Canada, the most exciting thing for me to has been the educational support and opportunities provided to youths of all races and ethnicities. The barriers have been minimized so that they can pursue their dreams.
4. How did you connect with PEN’s writers-in-exile group?
During my time at FCJ Refugee Centre I was introduced to professional networks who work tirelessly for newcomers to Toronto. Since then, I have been trying to familiarize myself with my new community and to explore how I can contribute to the society. PEN Canada has been one of these networks. It has opened the door to a great opportunity for me to work with George Brown College as a writer-in-residence this fall.
5. Can you tell us a bit about the project you’ll be working on during your time at George Brown?
It is an exciting opportunity for me to work with GBC. I attend classes as guest speaker. I will also assist professors with workshops and presentations on certain topics by sharing real-life stories and experiences. I’ll also get to hone my literary skills which will help with my short stories. Coming from Afghanistan, having faced all the challenges that young girls and women there face and now becoming one refugee among millions, I have a backpack heavy with untold stories. Writing will help me unpack them, and lighten the burden a little. I know I have lots of work ahead of me before I finish a full writing project, but working with GBC is a good start.