Members of Iraq’s National Theatre Company have been denied visas to perform in Canada at a theatre festival in Kitchener, Ont., later this month out of fear that the Iraqis would attempt to obtain refugee status while in Canada.
In a form letter from the Canadian embassy in Paris to the company director, the group was told it had not satisfied immigration officials that its members would leave Canada at the end of their temporary term.
The nature of the performers’ work and their financial situation in their home country were the factors considered in reaching this conclusion, the Canadian officials said. The Kitchener festival, known as Impact 15, now in its fourth season, emphasizes indigenous and culturally diverse works from across Canada, and has always included one or two international productions.
The Iraqi company was to perform the play Camp, an award-winning production about life in a Middle Eastern refugee camp, on Sept. 26 and 27. “It was perfectly timed for Canadians who are thinking of this very issue,” said festival director Majdi Bou-Matar.
“We were very excited about it being part of Impact.” Mr. Bou-Matar, a Druze from Lebanon who immigrated to Canada in 2003, said he was well aware of concerns about who is allowed into the country and the vigilance of Canadian officials.
“We went out of our way to show them that the performers would be leaving when the play was over,” he said. “We sent them copies of the return airline tickets that we already bought for them, their hotel reservations; even details of the transportation to and from the airport.”
Company director and playwright Muhaned Alhadi, 47, said this was the first time he had been denied entry to a Western country, having travelled to Germany, Hungary, Sweden and France, where he now works in the theatre department of the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon.
He is married with two daughters aged 4 and 6. “We don’t understand why Canada has refused his request,” said his wife, Souad Odeh, in a telephone interview. “It seems they are scared he won’t leave the country at the end of his visa.”
Mr Alhadi has lived primarily outside his home country of Iraq since 2003, when he moved to Lebanon shortly before the invasion by U.S.-led forces. In 2004, he went to Syria where he met his wife, a Palestinian refugee – and worked there until he got involved with a theatre company that opposed the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
It was then that he returned to Iraq where he began to work with the National Theatre Company. He won the award for best director for Camp at the first Baghdad International Theatre Festival in the fall of 2013 – but, soon enough, he found himself at odds with politicians over his art and he and his family moved to France.
Mr. Alhadi has had to jump through hoops to visit Western countries before – and expects it to be a long and complicated process for someone of his background to apply for a visa. He even travelled to Paris to be fingerprinted as part of the process to visit Canada with his play Camp. But he doesn’t understand why he and his cast have been denied entry.
Neither does Layla Khafaji, a Shia member of Iraq’s national parliament. “It’s wrong,” she said in a telephone interview, “to just assume that, because they’re not wealthy Iraqis, they’re likely to seek Canadian asylum.” Ms. Khafaji, an engineer, came to Canada as a refugee after spending 10 brutal years in prison during the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Her crime had been to work as an engineer while refusing to join the ruling Baath Party. “I understand Canada’s need to be careful,” she said, “but there are ways to ensure that someone will leave the country – guarantees can be signed.”
“It’s very important for Canadians that they hear about personal experiences in this part of the world and learn from them,” she said, adding that she would contact Iraq’s minister of culture and insist that he look into this matter with Canada.
Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic said the people of his community value the Impact festival and the variety of voices that are brought into the productions. “I’m disappointed that we couldn’t hear from the Iraqis this year,” he said, “but it’s for the professionals in Canadian immigration to make these decisions.”
by PATRICK MARTIN AND J. KELLY NESTRUCK