"On a summer afternoon flooded with sunshine when I was four years old, my parents, sister and I walked into the arrivals section of Montreal’s international airport. To our surprise and delight, a welcoming group of Canadians was waiting for us. That moment of welcome—which remains etched in my parents’ memories three decades later—symbolized the new life that I would build in Canada after having left my homeland as a child, as a refugee. I have grown up in an adoptive home that I cherish, a country that embraces unity in diversity.
It was easy to see the value of diversity, because by my fifth birthday, I had been immersed in four cultures—Persian, Pakistani, Acadian and English Canadian—each with their own rich languages and histories. And in each of those places I had encountered people with courageous hearts and open minds. Contrasted with the events that led to my family’s escape from Iran, it was not difficult to internalize even as a young child that justice and equality are not merely lofty goals, but rather practical imperatives whose presence or absence have incalculable consequences in people’s lives.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution and its aftermath forced my family to flee our home; as members of the Baha’i Faith, we were summarily persecuted. My parents lost their jobs, my father as an engineer and my mother as a teacher. Far worse than that was facing the constant and arbitrary risk of peril. After a series of events, including the abduction, torture, and execution of my uncle, my parents made the excruciating decision to flee. We undertook the perilous journey to Pakistan. For two days in the summertime desert, we walked with no food, drinking water from dirty pools in the desert. We literally ran across the border, narrowly avoiding an army patrol tank that would have fired upon sight. We arrived in Pakistan half-alive, but free. Nearly a year later, with the help of the UNHCR and the Canadian government, we boarded a plane destined for Montreal.
In Canada, I learned that one special night of the year, I could dress up as a bumble bee, visit my neighbours, and receive more treats than I thought existed. And that even if it was my first ever visit to church, Santa Claus knew that I was there and had been a good girl, and so offered me a gift alongside all the other children. These sweet childhood memories, alongside painful ones, taught me an important lesson: to grow flourishing plants, the farmer first has to tear up the soil. To transform glass into art, the blower must first plunge the raw material into fire. The fact that my family and I became refugees as a result of events out of our control, and that we faced and overcame circumstances of extreme hardship and uncertainty—this is not something I lament, it is something I value. It is what motivated me to pursue studies in law, and become a refugee and immigration lawyer. And it is what impels me to tell my story through the art of storytelling.
These days, when someone asks me where I am from, I hearken to the words of Pico Ayer and say that I belong to the ever-growing group of people who get to choose the answer to that question. Sometimes it is the land of my birth, a place from which I remain in exile and for which I carry a strange nostalgia. Sometimes it is Toronto, the most multicultural city in the world, where I grew up. But most often, it is a place inside me: an intangible yet steady place from which I can connect with every other human being. Because we are all human before we are anything else."
Photo Credit: Zachary David