I came to Canada as a refugee in 1991 when I was 4 years old, having left Iran when I was a year old because of threats to my father’s life.
When he was 25 years old, a neighbour reported on my father for distributing anti-government propaganda. He was arrested in the middle of the night and dragged out of his home blindfolded while his mother and father wept.
Four times he was awoken in the middle of the night, blindfolded and thrown into the back of the van taken to stand before the firing squad. Four times he stood there, believing this was his time, just to hear them taunt him that today was not his turn to die.
For four years my father spent his days with young, brilliant men in small prison cells. Together, they would share stories, and together they wept when one by one the men were executed without warning.
My father rarely speaks about his experience in prison, but he did tell me a story once, about a young man who had been told he was going to die the next morning. He had three children, so my father and the other prison mates spent the night braiding bracelets out of the man’s hair and clothes so that his children would have something to remember their father by. The next morning, the man was hung.
My father didn’t know his name. It was no use remembering each others names. The only thing was to remember their stories. My father was one of the lucky ones. As abruptly as he was taken, he was released, yet he was not free. They will return for him, they promised, and this time he will die.
Although my father lived his life in hiding, he did get married and had children.
One night, right after my first birthday party, an old friend of my fathers came to our home, pounding at the door.
They are coming; you have to hide, he said.
But my father refused. He was tired of hiding. They took four years of his life in prison; they will not use fear to imprison him any longer.
My parents sold everything they had to pay a smuggler to get us over the mountains and into Turkey.
I cannot imagine the horrors they experienced as they walked for hours on end, or what my mother felt as her husband was taken away from her, to be interrogated at the border, or how she felt the moment he made her promise that no matter what happens to him, she must move on.
When we finally arrived in Nevsehir, Turkey, several months later, it was the dead of winter. No one wanted to take in the small group of refugees who had nothing but the clothes on their backs. My mother sat on a snow bank, cradling me against the bitter wind while my father and the other men went knocking on doors begging for someone to give us a place to stay for one night. Hearing me cry, an old couple rushed out and quickly welcomed us into their home.
We lived with this couple for almost three years.
When I first learned to speak, I spoke Turkish and affectionately called them Buk Aneh and Buk Baba which meant grandmother and grandfather in Turkish. My parents were not allowed to work because of their status but Buk Aneh and Buk Baba were so kind. They treated my parents like their own children and we lived very happily with them. I remember a warm house with lots of music, gorgeous cats, and fresh honey from Buk Baba’s apiary.
The day finally came when we received the news that we had been accepted into Canada. It was bittersweet news. We were so happy because my mother’s sister and her family lived in Calgary – our new home. But we were also sad to leave behind Buk Aneh and Buk Baba—the most loving couple we had ever met and who accepted us like their own—and change the family we had become the past three years.
It took almost six months, but we finally made it to Canada.
I was four, and I remember arriving at the Calgary airport and being hugged by a strange woman. She spoke delightfully fast and in a language I did not understand.
I remember staring into her big beautiful blue eyes and thinking “how could someone look so happy to see me?” I had no clue what she was saying but she gave me a Bounty Bar. I stared at it, not sure what it was, and heard her say “Chocolate”. Now that was a word I knew and I immediately loved her!
The next few months were difficult for my family. On top of having to learn English and a whole new culture, my aunt in Iran died suddenly at the age of 33 leaving behind four young children. She and my father had been very close so it crushed him. I will never forget that day because it was the first time I saw him cry. But the next day, he pushed through his grief; he took his English books and left for class. Because of his prison sentence, my father was unable to pursue his education, and so education became the most important thing in his life. He loved learning and he wanted to know a little bit about everything. But he also knew education was the key to independence in his new home.
My father was grateful for the government’s assistance, but he was more determined then ever to enter the work force as soon as possible and pay the government back. And he stayed true to his word. Within six months, he passed his English exams and immediately began working as a mechanic during the day and delivering pizza at night. My parents worked and worked until we finally had enough money to stand on our own. I remember how happy they were when we finally moved into our own home.
Now, I have my university education and my younger brother, who was born Calgarian, is working on his. My parents have their own business and are not too keen on retiring anytime soon. I have my Canadian passport proudly stamped with all the places I have travelled.
Most Canadians will never experience the chaos refugees have endured and I am grateful for that. I am thankful for the amazing Canadians who took care of my family. I am thankful for Canada, for giving us the opportunity to keep living. Freedom – this is what Canada represents to many refugees. Freedom to be who you want and express your opinion without fearing for your life.
My heart fills with so much joy when I see videos of Syrian refugees arriving, because I understand what it took to get here, and what it’s going to take now to move forward. I know not everyone shares this sentiment, and the comments I hear and read are not always reflective of how most Canadians feel. It doesn’t change the fact that Canadians are famous for their hospitality, kindness, and respect for everyone.
One video in particular stands out to me—one of a little girl staring into the face of Justin Trudeau, completely bewildered. She reminded me of how welcomed I felt just twenty-five years ago. This was the first impression I had as a scared, four-year-old arriving in Calgary and it is still the impression I have all these years later. And if I ever need to remember the true essence of what it means to be a Canadian, I just reach for a Bounty Bar.