By Hoda Farahmandpour
As a young child I was always fascinated by my mother’s story of her arrival to Canada. It seemed fantastical to me that my poised, rather petite, and refined mother, could ever make such a daring escape by foot with my father across the Iran/Pakistan border by paying off a smuggler. In fact, it probably doesn’t sound too different from the experience of thousands of Syrians today. Risking your life and putting it in the hands of a stranger, to cross a difficult terrain, leaving your homeland, to face an uncertain and unknown future. But perhaps what fascinated me even more was the reason for my parent’s departure from Iran to Canada. The 1979 revolution in Iran served to intensify the persecution of Iran’s largest religious minority, adherents of the Bahá’í Faith. And like hundreds of others, my parents had no choice but to flee, to avoid a similar fate of those like my mother’s three uncles, whose lives were taken so unjustly. Canada was an early and prominent voice in the international condemnation against attacks on Bahá’ís and opened its doors to hundreds of refugees, like my parents, to settle and begin life anew.
This knowledge, that members of my own family, had not only given their life for the Bahá’í Faith, but came to Canada knowing that their deep and abiding love for its teachings could find expression in simple and profound acts of service undertaken for the betterment of all, was not lost to me. I came to appreciate that my purpose in life was to aspire for spiritual and intellectual growth in order “to make a contribution to the fortunes of humanity” and learned from the youngest of age that no deed in the world is “nobler than service to the common good”; that “the highest righteousness” is to “arise and energetically devote themselves to the service of the masses”.
My mother served as a potent example. In Canada she found the freedom to pursue her studies, to consort with neighbors from all walks of life with friendliness and ease, to educate her children, and for her, most importantly, to contribute to the betterment of her newfound community; through classes for the moral education of children of all, gatherings for prayer so that people from different races and classes could find peace and solitude in the Words of God, and in her own personal life, as a staunch supporter of justice and equity. The woman wouldn’t even let you try to cheat her; it would just offend her sense of justice.
And myself? Through her encouragement, I am completing doctoral studies in the field Adult Education and Community Development; and have spent the last ten years learning how to initiate a process of community transformation through the empowerment of young people in Toronto. As part of a part of network of organizations concerned with education for development, Wordswell association of Community Learning, a Canadian non-for-profit organization formed in 2007, has contributed to these global efforts by offering programmess for youth to train and support them as builders of their communities and agents of positive change. The impacts are innumerable and can be seen in both individuals and the community. From the eventual disappearance of long standing inter-neighbourhood conflict, to the flourishing of young men and women, who with clarity and conviction enter adulthood with a vision for a better world, with the qualities, attitudes and skills needed to act on their conviction in the arena of their studies, family life and careers. And in turn, I have grown and learned in ways that no other opportunity could provide. For growth and development along a path of service, in the company of others, is truly a transformative experience.
My mother passed away unexpectedly three years ago from Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer at the age of 57. In the fleeting few months between the knowledge of her sickness as a result of an unfortunate stroke, to her last breath, she accepted this last set of difficulties with laughter; kindness and a prayerfulness that made us all feel as though we lingered between earth and heaven during that short time. And just like that, my poised, rather petite and refined mother left her newfound homeland with the same grace and dignity from when she first arrived.
My family’s experience, in some ways, is also my hope for Canada moving forward. As Canada continues to welcome newcomers, how might they be empowered to contribute to the betterment of Canadian society? Rather than experiencing isolation, assimilation or even integration into the existing social, political and economic landscape; could newcomers, like my own family, who bring with them so much richness of experience, be enabled to participate in the life of society, so that they too are active contributors for the building of a better society?