Kader in Sanctuary: Radio show is his lifeline

Posted by admin on Jul 8th, 2008

CHRISTOPHER MAUGHAN. The Gazette. Monday, July 07, 2008

Abdelkader Belaouni lives in profound isolation. As a blind refugee in sanctuary at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church, he can never leave his makeshift home. He worries that if he does, he’ll be deported to his native Algeria, where he fears for his life after standing up to rebel soldiers there in 1996. The federal government has twice ruled against letting him stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds, so Belaouni has been living inside a church rectory in Point St. Charles for the past 917 days. “This is torture,” Belaouni says of his situation. “It’s psychological torture, a torture of my mind.”

Despite the mental toll of being physically cut off from the world around him, he manages to stay connected to his community and, in many ways, even become its voice.

Every month, from priest James MacDonald’s living room, Belaouni – who came to Montreal through the United States after his visa there expired in 2003 – hosts a monthly one-hour current-affairs radio show on CKUT, a non-profit McGill campus community radio station.

For the 41-year-old refugee, The Hour of Power is a welcome distraction from the monotony he can’t escape.

“It helps keep me in touch with what’s happening outside my room.”

But it’s also much more than that; Belaouni says it’s a way for him to contribute to the society that he waits to rejoin. Although Ottawa doesn’t want him here, Belaouni feels compelled to give something back to Canadians. If deported, federal officials would send him back to the United States where, in turn, U.S. officials would deport him to Algeria.

“I feel like I have a lot of support,” Belaouni says of his radio show. “And when I see people supporting me, I feel like I’m in debt to the people who are trying to protect me. This is the only thing I can do.”

He says he’d be going crazy without the regular distraction the radio show provides, which is especially important given that his immigration case is stalled. His appeals on humanitarian grounds, the most recent of which was rejected in September 2006, were his last legal option. His supporters continue to appeal to Immigration Minister Diane Finley directly, hoping she’ll use her discretionary power to grant him refugee status.

Since his first radio show almost two years ago, Belaouni, who had no broadcasting or journalism experience, has faced an uphill battle. His greatest challenge is dealing with blindness.

“I can’t have all the questions in front of me; I have to keep them in my mind,” he explains. “And for the whole hour, I have to listen very closely to each thing that people say because I can’t take notes.”

Belaouni recalls his first show, which he says made him so nervous he wanted to quit then and there.

“I remember feeling very tight, like shaking all the time. When I finished my hour I said, ‘I (don’t) think I can do this anymore.’ ”

But his friends persuaded him to reconsider.

“Everybody called me and my friends kept telling me I was great, so I did it again.”

MacDonald says he was impressed from the get-go.

“Kader has a lot of human qualities. I think that makes it easier for people to relate to him.”

Another of Belaouni’s biggest fans is Mostafa Henaway, CKUT’s former news co-ordinator.

“It was both the most incredible and upsetting thing,” Henaway says of meeting Belaouni for the first time. “I can’t ever forget that moment.”

Three months after their first meeting, Henaway decided he had to get Belaouni on the air.

“Our mandate has always been to try to amplify the voice of those who don’t have a voice in society. With Kader not being able to type or write, we thought this would help give him a voice outside the church.”

At least that’s how Henaway initially envisioned things.

Belaouni tackles several subjects on his show – from local issues like the development of Griffintown to global warming or the war in Iraq – but the one he won’t broach is his own situation.

“It shows his character and what kind of person he is,” Henaway says. “I think he’s sort of said to himself, ‘I’m not going to get down on my knees and use this tool to beg. No, I’m going to rise above my situation and maintain my most basic human dignity.’ And I think that’s actually made the support for him stronger.”

Belaouni says he would feel selfish otherwise.

“I would feel like a hypocrite. The show’s not for Kader; it’s for other people. We have people in Montreal who have to live with less than $20,000 a year. We have people in the world who can’t find food. Let’s talk about them. It’s not fair if I’m talking about myself.”


The Hour of Power is on next on July 18 at 5 p.m. on CKUT, 90.3 FM


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