Since he arrived in Canada as a United Nations sponsored refugee, Jalal Barzanji has become known not only for his extraordinary talents as a poet, essayist and champion of freedom of speech for all writers, but also as a tireless community worker. Born in Kurdistan, Jalal was working as a journalist, poet and cultural worker in northern Iraq when, during the regime of Saddam Hussein, he was imprisoned and tortured for two years for his political beliefs. After fleeing Iraq, he applied for permanent residency in Canada and arrived in Edmonton with his family in 1998.
During this time of transition, Jalal was and still remains an active writer, reader and presenter. Jalal joined the Edmonton Stroll of Poets in 2001, and the Writers Guild of Alberta and PEN Canada in 2007. That same year, he was named the First International Edmonton-PEN Writer-in-Exile and during his term he worked as a writing coach and mentor from his offices at the Edmonton Public Library and the University of Alberta. During part of the following year, he was Writer-in- Residence at the Berton House in Dawson City. Jalal’s literary memoir, The Man in Blue Pyjamas, was translated from Kurdish into English and was published by the University of Alberta Press to rave reviews. It received several honours, including the Alberta Book Awards Lois Hole Award for Editorial Excellence. It was also honoured by ‘A Year of Reading the World.’ The University of Alberta Press recently published Trying Again to Stop Time, a translated selection from Jalal’s seven Kurdish books of poetry.
Just two years after his arrival, Jalal founded the Canadian Kurdish Friendship Association to help integrate newcomers into the community. He personally worked with youth involved in gangs, mobilized Kurdish seniors to support each other, and mentored many young leaders in Edmonton’s Kurdish community. He has also been deeply involved with the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative as a community worker/advocate. Jalal is known in Edmonton’s multicultural community for his quiet yet powerful visionary leadership.
“When we use our words together, writers are stronger than armies and dictators. When we write, there is no cost in blood or tears. If we defend one another’s freedom, we can make the world more peaceful, more beautiful for everyone. That is our purpose as writers. That is why we exist.”