Iranians in Quebec channel their pain into action as they watch mass protests unfold from afar
Ava says it’s like she was on a university campus in Tehran yesterday.
But her life before immigrating to Canada four years ago seems so distant now, it also seems « centuries ago. »
Sitting in front of the library on the campus of Laval University in Quebec, the doctoral student remembers all that she misses in her life in Iran.
Studying in the cafe next to the university, chatting with friends, going to the movies, visiting grandparents, and planning picnics and road trips.
« The streets of Tehran next to my university were very beautiful in the fall. It was just like here, » Ava said, looking at the trees that turned yellow.
Besides the fond memories of growing up in Iran surrounded by family and friends in an « open-minded community », Ava notes that there are darker reminders, some of which explain why she left the country in 2018.
Ava is not her real name. CBC News is protecting her identity because she fears for the safety of her family in Iran for speaking publicly.
“My university was kind of the open-minded university among all universities,” she recalls. « We didn’t have to wear very tight hijabs. »
« (But) even at my university, there were professors coming up to us and saying, you know, you’re not allowed to come to university (without tight hijabs), » Ava said, referring to strict rules of modesty. in Iran which were implemented in 1979.
« I was tired of this prison. »
Ava says she made the decision to leave her country and continue her education in Canada, but struggled to navigate and support her friends and family from afar as unrest grew and protests erupted in his home country.
More recently, Ava was one of hundreds of Iranians in Quebec to take part in protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iran.
Amini died on September 16 after she was arrested by Iranian vice police in Tehran for allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely.
His death sparked international condemnation and protests inside and outside the country.
Facing the anxiety of being disconnected from family and friends after weeks of protests and violent government crackdowns in Iran, Ava says expats like her have tried to show their support in any way they can.
“My heart is in Iran”: Fear for the safety of family and friends
Ava says when she first heard of Amini’s death she felt « freaked out » and saddened that she couldn’t protest alongside many of her friends and family – many of whom , she said, are at risk of being killed, injured or arrested in the protests.
« But here I am, living free, » Ava said. « The feeling is why I’m not here to fight with them… (Any) person arrested, it could be me. I want to be there and fight because I love my country. For a while… I lost hope. «
While some of Ava’s friends have joined her in Canada, her parents, other friends and two of her siblings are still there.
« It’s been three years since I’ve seen my parents and siblings. Every day I wake up and say to myself, ‘What if I don’t see them anymore?’ And it’s very hard… It’s all the time you have on your mind. It’s been a while since I’ve eaten well, I haven’t cooked, I haven’t done my routine. And I have so many nightmares.
Parvin Ramezani, who immigrated to Quebec eight years ago, says she too has experienced a lot of anxiety in recent weeks.
« My heart is in Iran. I can’t sleep very well. I can’t eat. I can’t concentrate on my work, » Ramezani said. « I grew up there. I have a lot of friends there who couldn’t immigrate. I have friends in prison and they are like family to me. »
Supporting those left behind
Ramezani says she needs to channel her anger. Although she wants to travel to find her friends and family, she says that would only make her quit.
“I will be useless there but I want to do something here for them,” said Ramezani, who noted that the small Iranian community in Quebec has come together to support each other.
« Pain can (bring) people together and we feel like family because (the) Iranian community is not a big community. We are very different. We have different opinions, we have different languages. But. .. we have a very, very important goal and that’s very sure… we want to have peace. »
Karim, who immigrated to Quebec from Iran about 11 years ago, says those outside the country have a responsibility to raise awareness. Karim is not his real name. CBC News is protecting his identity because he fears for his safety for speaking in public.
“There is not much we can do for Iran these days except spread the word, spread the message of the Iranian people who want revolution,” Karim said. « They are fighting for freedom. That is why the main slogan of this revolution is ‘women, life, freedom' ».
He says all they can do is try to relay the situation in Iran to elected officials in Western countries, in the hope that they might intervene and « stop legitimizing the Iranian regime ».
Remembering life in Iran
One of Ramezani’s earliest memories in Iran is being told to wear a hijab.
Walking down the street with her mother in her hometown of Ahvaz, two men stopped Ramezani’s mother and asked her why her daughter’s hair was not covered. She was in 1st grade.
« I was ashamed of myself, (thinking) why did I do something wrong? » remembers Ramezani.
Her childhood memories of the vice squad are part of what made her promise never to have children in Iran.
As someone who participated alongside many students in some major protests before leaving the country, she swore she would never give birth to a girl under the regime.
In 2014, Ramezani immigrated to Canada with her husband of 17 years, Keivan Karimzadeh, and they now have two daughters. Their eldest, Viana, is six years old – around the age Ramezani was when she started wearing the compulsory hijab.
« When we got here, we found out we were going to have a girl. I promised her to make the world a better place for her, for both of them, » Ramezani said.
« I promised them every year on their birthday…I do my best to make the world a better place for them. »
Have hope: « the world can hear us »
Last month, Ramezani and his daughter Viana took part in the first of many demonstrations organized in Quebec. She says this time the protests are different.
« I have hope this time, because this time I feel the world can hear us and I feel the Iranian regime is afraid of it, » Ramezani said.
Roozbeh Tajik, who immigrated to Canada about three years ago, says he is hopeful after seeing how the world reacted to Mahsa’s death. He says he thinks it could be a catalyst for greater change in Iran.
« I am optimistic that we will have a good country, a great country and a democratic country, and a free country, » Tajik said.
He notes that when he was younger, he didn’t know things could be different in Iran.
« I didn’t know what the other alternatives would be until I turned 18, until I went to college, knowing there was something called freedom, knowing that there is something called democracy and justice, » Tajik said.
« At the same time, I knew that I was not free. I knew that I was not allowed to express my ideas freely. »
He says fortunately Iranians in and around Quebec support each other and feel deeply for their friends and family on the ground in their home country.
« The Iranian people, who are currently on the street…it’s (as if) myself, I was on the street and I was beaten and shot, » Tajik said.