Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Is it a crime to want to live?

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It could have been a perfect love story with a happy ending -- and maybe, with your help, it still can be.

Antonella Mega is an Italian-born Canadian who married an Iranian-Canadian man, Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, in Toronto. It was love at first sight, and they were a perfect match.

But in May 2008, when Hamid went to Iran to visit his ailing mother, he was arrested. The accusations against him are vague and have to do with spying.

For three and a half years, Antonella has tried to get her husband released and back home to Canada, to no avail. When I wrote a piece about her story a while back, some people commented that Hamid should have known better; he shouldn't have gone back to Iran.

True. But his father had died while he was in Canada and his mother was ill. It is easy for those who have been born in Canada and lived here all their lives to make such judgments. Yet, our love for our family sometimes makes us do illogical things.

Antonella needs the support of her fellow Canadians at this time of need. She doesn't expect Canada to invade Iran and is not asking for military intervention. All she needs us to do is to raise our voices to Iranian officials and to let them know that we are very upset that a Canadian citizen is behind bars in Iran.

Antonella, with the help of Amnesty International, has now begun a postcard campaign and hopes that Canadians would support her by mailing the postcards ask for Hamid's release to the Iranian embassy in Ottawa.

In October 2011, I was invited by one of the members of a club in Toronto to speak at one of their meetings. I am an author and a speaker and give four or five talks a week.

I had already been booked for that evening and, considering that the topic has to do with the condition of political prisoners in Iran, I asked Antonella Mega and Mary Jo Leddy, a well-known Canadian author, professor, and activist, to take my place and speak for that club, which prides itself in providing humanitarian service, encouraging high ethical standards in all vocations, and helping build goodwill and peace in the world. So you can imagine my shock when the club wrote back to me, saying that they believed they were well informed about the general situation in Iran, and they didn't want to hear about it again.

I was dumbfounded. Do we Canadians really know enough about the horrific disregard for basic human rights in many parts of the world? Do we understand what it means to be in constant fear of arrest and torture because of a few sentences we happened to utter to criticize our government? To be lashed because we were wearing the wrong kind of clothes? To be thrown in jail only because of our religion or beliefs? To be incarcerated for reading "illegal" books? To be put in solitary confinement or even be hanged because we are gay or lesbian?

There is an important question that we Canadians need to ask ourselves: Why do some people leave their homes and families, spend years in refugee camps, or, out of sheer desperation, pay human smugglers to come to Canada?

Many of us know the answer to this question because we ourselves are refugees or immigrants. Some of us arrived here with only the clothes on our backs, shrapnel in our bodies, and lash marks on the soles of our feet, not to mention emotional and psychological scars.

I'm sure many of you remember MV Ocean Lady, a ship that arrived off the British Columbia coast in 2009, carrying 76 orphans, women who had been raped, traumatized people, two priests, and a respected journalist. The passengers of that ship, most of whom were survivors of unimaginable trauma, were immediately put in detention and interrogated, and they have since been treated like criminals.

As Mary Jo Leddy explains it in her article, Years from Now, Canadians will Apologize, published in Embassy Magazine on Sept. 28, 2011, one of the survivors of MV Ocean Lady asked her, "Is it a crime to want to live?"

I came to Canada in 1991 because I wanted to live, and I'm grateful to this beautiful and amazing country and its good people for giving me a home and support when I had nowhere to go. But not everyone is as lucky as I was, and now that I am a Canadian, I feel that it is my duty to stand up for others like me who are practically or literally condemned to death in the country of their birth.

Every day is an opportunity for all of us to show our love for our neighbour, any neighbour, regardless of their place of birth, colour of skin or religion, whether it be the passengers of MV Ocean Lady seeking to build a new life for themselves and their families here in Canada, or Hamid Ghassemi-Shall and other prisoners in Iranian prisons.

Let's stand up for goodness and humanity and against injustice, no matter where or how it is committed.

Marina Nemat is author of Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran. She is keynote speaker for the Strangers in New Homelands conference at University of Manitoba Nov. 3-4 and will also sign books at McNally Robinson Booksellers Nov. 3

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 2, 2011 A10

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