Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Noura Al-Jizawi, a Syrian activist who arrived in Canada in 2017, with the Independence flag of Syria on Feb. 16, 2021.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Emile Dirks is a research associate at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.

Many international victims of torture have found safety in Canada. My colleague, Noura Al-Jizawi, is one of them. As a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, Noura not only studies state repression, she has survived it. She was kidnapped and forcibly disappeared from a bus station in her native Syria in 2012 for participating in anti-government protests.

Noura arrived in Canada as a student in 2017, but inexplicably, in the process of applying for permanent residency in Canada, her application was flagged on national security grounds. Both Noura and her husband, Bahr Abdul Razzak, a fellow researcher at the Citizen Lab, applied for express entry to the country as highly skilled technology workers. Applications for these visas are usually processed within a matter of months, yet Noura and Bahr waited on an answer for three years, with no further clarification as to why Noura’s application was flagged. It took an international advocacy campaign for Canadian authorities to relent and for Noura and Bahr to become permanent residents.

Canadian authorities have not clarified how Noura, a brave human rights defender and torture survivor, could have posed a risk to the country. With the threat of deportation looming over her head, Noura was unable to build a stable life in Canada for herself, her husband or their five-year-old daughter (herself a Canadian citizen). Were Canadian authorities to have deported Noura to Syria, she likely would have been imprisoned, tortured or even killed by the Syrian government or its allies. Despite becoming a permanent resident, Noura is still vulnerable to deportation under Section 34 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. It would be indefensible for the Canadian government to allow this to happen.

Noura has produced groundbreaking research on how the world’s most brutal regimes attack their citizens overseas. Her timely work on digital transnational repression is vital to understanding the corrosive impact that authoritarian state harassment has on its victims, diaspora communities and on Canadian democracy.

Once the Arab Spring was under way in 2010, Noura began organizing peaceful demonstrations advocating for democracy in Syria. She was arrested by authorities in Damascus in 2012 and was detained in one of Syria’s brutal prisons. Noura was viciously tortured with beatings, electric shocks and the screams of her fellow prisoners. After half a year, authorities released her.

Fleeing to Turkey, Noura became vice-president of the opposition-in-exile Syrian National Coalition. She was a prominent voice for women in the group and was elected to sit at the UN’s negotiating table in Geneva to bring peace to Syria. She founded Start Point, an NGO supporting Syrian women who have been tortured. In response to her advocacy, Iranian state-linked groups tried to hack her electronic devices.

For the past six years, Noura has called Canada home. After completing a master’s degree in global affairs through the University of Toronto’s scholars-at-risk program, she joined the Citizen Lab, where her research on state repression has become a powerful tool for peace and justice.

Despite death threats from Syrian regime-linked groups and the trauma of what she has endured, Noura continues to speak out. This year, Canadian and Dutch government lawyers at the International Court of Justice presented Noura’s testimony about her torture as evidence of the Syrian government’s crimes.

Canada should be proud that brave women like Noura call this country their home, that it is a place that provides them with a sense of safety. It is inconceivable that Canadian authorities, rather than supporting her, posed a threat to her freedom under the guise of national security.

Noura’s case is even more baffling given the Canadian government’s pursuit of a “feminist international assistance policy.” As the office of Canada’s Ambassador for Women Peace and Security has stated, “Canada knows that sustainable peace is only possible when women are fully involved in the resolution of conflict, and peace and security efforts.” Noura has dedicated her life to the causes of peace and security, first in Syria, then in Turkey and now in Canada.

Noura is now a permanent resident, but this is not enough. Ottawa must apologize, conduct an independent investigation of her case and ensure her and her family’s safety. Canadian authorities must ensure that other human rights defenders will not face the trauma, unfounded suspicion and delays that Noura has endured.

Like so many brave women, Noura has dedicated her life to peace and justice. It is only right that Noura should continue her noble work here in Canada.

Interact with The Globe