SFU contributes to Surrey becoming Canada’s first City of Refuge

Housan Al-Mosilli (above) is one of the safe, previously persecuted, artists to become a part of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). Surrey joins the 60 cities that are part of this network.

Writer and journalist Housam Al-Mosilli, who was born and raised in Syria, was arrested three times and tortured by Syrian security because he was reporting on anti-government demonstrations. He was forced to flee from his home country, in 2012 and did not find a safe place to call home until August 2013.  

Al-Mosilli is one of many artists worldwide whose stories of persecution prompted SFU to partner with the City of Surrey to create a committee, resulting in Surrey becoming Canada’s first City of Refuge for persecuted artists and writers.

Surrey will join with more than 60 cities worldwide that have been accepted into the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). This is an organization that aims to protect and promote writers and artists who are at risk. The program has placed over 140 artists and writers into safer homes, where their artistic abilities can be put to use without fear of persecution. ICORN not only places the artists in a host city, they also assist the writer in distributing their works. This opportunity gives the artist a strong voice in the world.

Najati Tayara, a writer from Syria, wrote in a testimony to ICORN’s effectiveness that the organization gave him “two years to organize [his] life, and to enrich and activate [his] experience.” While in his host city, Tayara continued to write for “Arabic newspapers and websites,” the difference being he was able to write without fear that he would be harmed for his work.

“SFU’s Surrey campus is thrilled to partner with the City of Surrey and KPU [Kwantlen Polytechnic University] to help designate Surrey as Canada’s first City of Refuge,” said SFU’s Surrey campus executive director Steve Dooley in a press release from the City of Surrey. “We are working to open doors that might have otherwise been closed on these important literary voices.”

Dooley explained to SFU News,that while the refuge is here, there will be opportunities for the writer to be part of the Surrey and SFU community.  He continued to say it shows “that we recognize and value literary excellence, no matter what the underlying struggle.”

The process of opening Surrey’s doors to the first artist has begun. A committee comprised of the City of Surrey, SFU, KPU, and the Surrey Public Library is currently working on the next step in the process, which is selecting a candidate and fundraising for their arrival. The committee is searching for an artist or writer who will thrive in the Surrey community.

In a recent interview with The Peak, Surrey Councillor Judy Villeneuve stated that the ideal candidate will be someone who is willing to “talk about their writing, and share their experiences” with the community.

Similar to the ambitions of Dooley, Villeneuve hopes to see the artist “inspire our own students, as well as remind our citizens that we take so much for granted. In Canada, we can express freely in our arts, while writers and artists elsewhere don’t have this ability.”