Cloudscape Comics depicts refugee stories in Vancouver

The story unspooled over the course of a haircut. Oliver McTavish-Wisden sat down in the barber’s chair and listened as his hairdresser, clippers in hand, told the story of how he arrived in Canada.

The barbershop, of course, couldn’t have been a more appropriate setting for Jay’s tale. The very same hairstyles he sends his customers away with are part of the reason why he was forced to leave Iran in the first place.

Jay asked to be identified by a pseudonym for this article, but he is sharing his experiences as a refugee publicly, as part of an art initiative aimed at Vancouver-area commuters.

Founded in 2015, Comics in Transit creates original, poster-sized comics for display in bus shelters and transit stops around Vancouver and its surrounding cities. For its second series, the project is offering a glimpse into the lives of Canada’s refugees, as illustrated by local comic-book artists.

McTavish-Wisden is one of those artists. Long before he started interviewing Jay, he was a loyal customer, frequenting the salon Jay owns in the Vancouver area. That’s how he started to hear bits and pieces of Jay’s story — about how Jay faced police intimidation for simply giving haircuts in his native Tehran.

“He was always happy to talk about that kind of thing with me. And I’ve always been curious,” McTavish-Wisden said. So the two collaborated to tell Jay’s story in comic form, so that his experiences could help educate Canadian citizens about the ongoing refugee crisis, the largest the world has seen since World War II.

“Everybody knows there are a ton of refugees coming in because of the crisis. But do they know them? Absolutely not. They’re just numbers. They’re just a statistic,” McTavish-Wisden said. “One of our goals is to try and humanize the things people are reading about in the news.”

But for Jay, speaking out comes with risks. He has a wife and kids, and dreams of doing hair for Hollywood stars one day. He worries about what might come of the things he cares about if he attracts too much attention.

“I don’t want to make trouble for myself and my family,” he said. “You can make fun of Donald Trump, and no one’s going to kill you. But if you make fun of the government of Iran, they will come after you. They are not going to forgive you.”

Jay started apprenticing as a hairdresser at age 17, eventually opening his own salon in the Iranian capital. The modern styles he offered brought him a devoted clientele, but they also attracted unwanted attention from the local police. They warned Jay to stick to government-approved haircuts, or else.

“I did what they said was a Western hairstyle,” Jay told ivoh. “But to me, hair is hair, whether it’s Western, Eastern or whatever. It’s just hairstyles.”

But over the years, Iran’s religious authorities have banned a number of popular haircuts, deeming them “un-Islamic.” Spiked hair, mullets and ponytails on men are all forbidden. Even wearing too much hair gel can be considered a violation.

“They asked me to cut my hair short,” Jay said, referring to his own long locks. “It’s not freedom. It’s not democracy. It’s not life.”

Since he refused to comply with the police orders, Jay was fined, and his shop was shut down. But he continued to cut hair, this time from inside an unmarked, office-style rental space. Only his clients knew where to find him.

“I had lots of clients in Tehran, so I didn’t need to have a sign out,” Jay said. “The police officers and government couldn’t find me because I didn’t have any advertisement.”

Still, it was a risky venture. One day, one of his customers — a teenager, Jay remembers, “almost a kid” — was arrested three blocks away from the secret salon. The police beat him until he confessed where he had gotten his haircut.

“It was a little scary,” Jay said. Forbidden from continuing his business, Jay eventually fled with his family to Turkey, then Canada in 2010. It was this story that McTavish-Wisden tasked himself with depicting.

McTavish-Wisden’s brainchild, Comics in Transit was imagined as a means of transforming comic books into a form of public art. “The good thing about a comic is that it’s both literary and visual,” he said. “So I think it’s really effective at communicating to people even if they don’t feel like reading.”

The first Comics in Transit series depicted life in different cities around the world, from Copenhagen to Guadalajara. But for the second series, McTavish-Wisden wanted to be even more ambitious. He said he found himself thinking, “I already do comics as a public art. Now let’s see if I can do them to raise public consciousness.”

McTavish-Wisden serves as the executive director of the Cloudscape Comics Society, a community of around 150 comic creators and writers in the Vancouver area. Ten artists from the non-profit collective agreed to work on the new project, pairing off with ten different refugees.

But making the arrangements wasn’t as simple as McTavish-Wisden thought it would be. “Getting the artists was easy. Finding the people to interview was hard,” he said.

He sought the help of local refugee organizations, but ultimately, he relied on his network of friends and colleagues to find most of the refugee participants. And then there was the question of nerves. Three of the refugees dropped out before the project had even started.

“I think a lot of them get scared. For those who are escaping oppressive regimes, it takes a long time to get over the idea that they’re not always listening to you,” McTavish-Wisden said. Many of the refugees, he added, were also busy rebuilding their lives in Canada. “So they may agree one day, and then they may change their mind, and it’s perfectly understandable.”

When McTavish-Wisden spoke to ivoh in July, the number of refugee participants he found had climbed back up to nine. The majority were from the Middle East, with a few others hailing from the former Soviet bloc and Colombia.

When the artists and refugees finally arranged to meet up for the first time, McTavish-Wisden made a point of attending too. He figured it would be more comfortable if he were there, since he was often the refugees’ first point of contact. Some of the refugees also brought a friend or family member, to act as a translator or moral support.

The resulting interviews provided the artists with a wide range of stories. One refugee recalled being thrown over a fence to safety as a child, and another explained how a racially motivated kidnapping left her brother indelibly changed.

But the interviews were only the start of the collaboration. The refugees were asked to make revisions to the artists’ work, so that the comics would reflect what actually happened. McTavish-Wisden personally ended up changing the script for his comic three times, based on the feedback he got from Jay. Once the script was fine-tuned, it was time to make thumbnail sketches of how the comic would look. That too had to be edited.

Jay, for instance, nixed a scene where men and women were cutting each other’s hair. “I sent him an email saying, ‘Oliver, it’s good to know that ladies are not allowed to touch men’s hair in Iran, and the opposite too,'” Jay said. “Many times, I had to correct his pictures, because people here, they have no idea.”

McTavish-Wisden also remembers Jay correcting a part of his script where he depicted the Iranian police trashing Jay’s salon. Contrary to what he imagined, the police simply told Jay to shut down — but a threat was clearly implied. “There had to be a lot of back-and-forth afterwards via email, with regards to details,” McTavish-Wisden said.

Each comic takes about a month to produce, so McTavish-Wisden anticipates the series will be on display by the fall of this year. The City of Vancouver has offered Cloudscape Comics free advertising space to display its work, and McTavish-Wisden says grants are covering the other costs, like printing fees and the artists’ commissions.

Jay has yet to see the finished artwork, but ultimately he hopes that the comic he’s in will leave Vancouver commuters with newfound gratitude for Canada’s civil liberties.

Even though Jay is now happily resettled thousands of miles away from Tehran, he remains fearful of the backlash he might face by speaking out. Sometimes he asks himself if he’s dumb for telling his story. But at the end of the day, Jay said he’s satisfied by his choice: “Sometimes you have to put the fear away and tell what’s really going on.”

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