PEN Canada has been a leader in making space for displaced writers, as one of the first PEN Centres to have formal Writers-in-Exile Committee and Network. Our work to “make space” began on an ad-hoc basis in the 1990s with the arrival of refugee writers like Chinese poet Duo Duo and Ethiopian journalist Martha Kumsa, and involved placements for writers at Canadian universities and colleges. This model was successfully adopted by PEN centres around the world, including those in Germany, Scotland and Switzerland.
By 2001, Reza Baraheni who fled Iran with PEN’s help, became the first exiled writer to be president of PEN Canada. Under his leadership, PEN Canada became the second chair of the newly formed PEN International Writers in Exile Network and in 2004, PEN Canada and PEN Québec organized a conference entitled “Building a Writers in Exile Network” that presented the work of PEN Centres around the world to delegates from over 90 institutions across Canada. The next year, PEN Canada presented the first Writers in Exile Network Handbook at the International PEN Congress in Slovenia.
Today, the PEN Canada Writers in Exile Network remains strong, connecting writers who have recently arrived in Canada with those who are well established. In partnership with Romero House, an organization that works to settle refugees, the network provides for the needs of displaced writers when they arrive in Canada, from refugee applications and the settlement process, to emergency funds that can be vital for those arriving in the midst of the cold Canadian winter. As they find their footing, a regular supper club serves as a touch point for the network members, with displaced writers and PEN members coming together to share a meal, updates on the advocacy work of the committee, and recent projects. The committee also provides workshops and networking opportunities specifically aimed at helping displaced writers find their place in the Canadian workforce.
PEN Canada continues to offer a yearly writer in residence position in partnership with George Brown College, and in June 2017, the Humber College School for Writers announced a scholarship for a PEN Canada writer in exile to their Creative Writing by Correspondence Program. Exiled writers may also take courses at Ryerson University at a reduced tuition fee, and are often called on to share their stories and insights as guest lecturers at institutions around Toronto.
To celebrate the launch of the PEN International ‘Make Space’ Campaign on May 31, 2017, PEN Canada hosted a launch party at the Toronto office. PEN members, friends, exiled writers and the general public were invited to learn about the work PEN does to aid displaced writers, and how they can help. Mostly recently, the writers in exile committee has been focusing its advocacy efforts on the family reunification process, meeting with Canadian officials about “making space” for the children and spouses of refugee writers. Party guests were invited to sign a letter to the Canadian Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, and Minister Foreign Affairs, thanking them for their support of persecuted writers and their families, and asking for their continued efforts for this group in the future. Exiled Sri Lankan journalist Ilamaran Nagarasa, who was reunited with his wife and daughter in August 2016 after seven years apart, spoke to the gathering about the importance of family reunification for displaced writers. As a special treat, Ilamaran’s daughter, Dishaly, read a poem entitled “Stop the War.” Photos and video from the event are available here.