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World Literature professor Melek Ortabasi connects with SFU community to create video responding to Trump travel ban

August 31, 2017
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By Ian Bryce

When United States president Donald Trump signed an executive order on Jan. 27, 2017 banning travel to seven majority-Muslim countries—which has since been reduced to six—people around the world took notice.

Melek Ortabasi, professor and director of Simon Fraser University’s World Literature program, was conducting research in Germany when she learned about the travel ban. As an American citizen with Canadian permanent residence status, Ortabasi felt compelled to take action. She wanted to show how the travel ban directly affected those near to her who weren’t necessarily American citizens—including SFU students, faculty and staff.

“I’m finding it very hard to look away from the political situation in the United States,” says Ortabasi. “Plus, it’s just over the border. If we think we’re unaffected by what’s going there then we’re very mistaken.”

Wanting to create a message that would be easily accessible and shareable, she decided to film a short video. Ortabasi invited her students to share their experiences.

World Literature students Yaqeen Abdulzahra and Samaah Jaffer, who also majors in International Studies and is a staffer in SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement, answered the call.

Abdulzahra discussed how her family has been divided by the ban. Jaffer provided narration and connected Ortabasi to Ashik Hussain, a staffer from Information Technology Services who shot and edited the video; Laya Behbahani, who works in Student Services as a policy analyst; to Azhar Nasser, a Muslim cleric, and to Harsha Walia, author and activist—all of whom share their experiences in the video.

The most surprising participant, says Ortabasi, was renowned Canadian author Joy Kogawa, who lived through the internment camps for Japanese Canadians during World War II. She opposes the ban and agreed to be featured in the video. Ortabasi connected with her through Mike Despotovic, a World Literature alumnus and former student of hers who works at Caitlin Press, a publishing house representing Kogawa.

Ortabasi says the video acknowledges the diverse make-up of SFU’s students, staff, and faculty and relates to the World Literature program’s mandate to emphasize intercultural values and provide students with tools for negotiating the global landscape and their own place in it.

“We talk about globalization but that means nothing if you don’t really understand intersectionality and the way in which discourse and ideas mix, mingle and fight with each other,” she says. “The World Literature Program is all about getting into that complexity and learning to understand it.”

The video “The Ban” was profiled on The Tyee and is available for viewing on YouTube.

For more information about SFU’s World Literature program—including courses with professor Ortabasi—click here.