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Iraqi artist and activist Ahmed Moneka in his adopted home of Toronto on March 24, 2021.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Last week, Iraqi musician, actor and activist Ahmed Moneka enjoyed a long-delayed milestone: He and his younger sister Tara sang together on stage for the first time in Toronto, after being separated by politics and culture for more than five years. Their on-stage performance was part of a pretaped concert hosted by the city’s arts organization Uma Nota Culture.

It was a first for them as a duo in Canada, but Moneka’s artistic pursuits date back to his years in his native Iraq, where he grew up and attended Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Art as a teen. He went on to become the youngest member of the Iraqi National Theatre and the first Black TV presenter in the country. Opportunities in the arts can be limited for Iraq’s minority Black population, but having a well-known comedic actor for a father helped pave his way, Moneka says.

His artistic career has been anything but smooth sailing, though. His troubles began in 2011 when he helped write and starred in The Society, a film about two secretly gay men living in Baghdad. It was a 30-minute black and white drama, made in response to the city’s militia murdering people for their sexuality.

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“We were scared to do something,” Moneka, 30, says today. But he, along with the film’s director, Osama Rasheed, felt it was their duty as straight men to make a statement in response to the killings.

In September, 2015, Moneka travelled to Canada for a screening of The Society at the Toronto International Film Festival. During the festival, his father called him, telling him that he received threats from the militia. They would kill Moneka if he came back because of the film’s depiction of homosexuality. His father urged him not to come home. Stunned, Moneka claimed refugee status and remained in Toronto.

“I was forced to stay here in order to save my life, and I didn’t know how to speak English,” he says.

Moneka eventually found a place to live in the Toronto suburb of North York. He enrolled in some English classes, too, but he was terrified of life in a new country. “I was so nervous, I was stressed, I was living in the past,” he says today.

Soon, though, he took more steps toward his new future. In early 2016, he was matched with Zac Schraeder, a volunteer at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, to help him get settled in Toronto. Schraeder remembers being impressed by Moneka’s resiliency but could also tell he was in shock.

Moneka says he struggled to make eye contact with people for his first few months in the city, partly because he was traumatized and partly because people were sometimes hesitant to communicate. He suggests his race was one reason, as well as his foreign name and broken English. He wandered around the city, head down, barely looking anyone in the eye. “But then I found Kensington Market,” he says.

The best part of the vibrant downtown neighbourhood, he says, is how residents from all sorts of backgrounds sing on the streets and play music together, regardless of language. “They could look in my eyes,” he says.

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One of his first friends, Tangi Ropars, was playing the accordion with a group of musicians in a park in Kensington when he first met Moneka. “At one point, Ahmed just came into the circle and started playing drums,” Ropars, who is originally from Brittany, France, says. “Ahmed is someone that you cannot miss, when he walks into a room you see him with his big smile, he’s like sunshine.”

Before long, Ropars and Moneka started a band called Moskitto Bar with Ukrainian Yura Rafalui, who also didn’t know much English. “It was healing for me, and for everyone there, like we were healing each other and then we took the healing to the people, to the city,” Moneka says.

The band is working on their second album now.

Moneka has also worked with the Canadian Opera Company, the Toronto Jazz Festival and the Toronto Laboratory Theatre, among other performing arts organizations. This year, he spent the first days of spring singing and drumming in the streets with his younger sister and friends, the sunshine pouring down on them – a stark contrast from his first lonely months in Toronto.

In early 2017, his parents and two sisters were forced to leave Baghdad as well, still facing pressure from the militia because of his movie. They moved to Samsun, Turkey. “I felt guilty for a really long time,” Moneka says. Late last year, he was finally reunited with them. Thanks to fundraising, organizing and networking, he managed to help them move to Toronto after the government sponsored their case.

They join him and his partner, who is originally from Paris, and their 19-month-old daughter. “Now I feel this is my town, this is my home, this is my city,” he says.

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Today, Moneka is studying theatre at the Soulpepper Academy in Toronto. He’s working on a play called The Onion Cellar, based on the work of German novelist Gunter Grass, with the help of his mentor, theatre veteran Jeremy Smith, and support from the Governor-General’s Award-nominated Nightswimming theatre.

“They come to the place to cut onions and to share, to be vulnerable and to reveal all the hidden trauma that they face, to be able to connect with their eyes, and to heal their eyes, to see,” Moneka says of the play, which he hopes will serve as a thank-you to the people of Kensington Market, the people who could look him in the eye.

When asked if he has any regrets about making The Society, Moneka is clear – not one. He looks back on his journey not with remorse, but with conviction. “We chose life, we chose life, we chose life.”

Ahmed Moneka’s concert via Uma Nota Culture can be found online on the organization’s YouTube channel

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