SEIU-West's Worker of Colour Multicultural Mentorship Committee recently interviewed Roya, a Continuing Care Assistant in Saskatoon, to celebrate International Refugee Day on June 20th. 

Where are you from and what was it like escaping your country?

In 1988, I escaped from Iran when I was 16. I escaped with 35 other refugees, and we had to pay to escape. We lived in the mountains for two weeks with no water or food, we walked in the dark and hid in the daytime. We arrived in Pakistan after walking for two weeks. At the time Pakistan accepted my Baháʼí faith. I remained in Pakistan for two years and lived as a refugee there until the Canadian government sponsored me as a refugee to come here. I arrived in Regina on October 27th, 1990. 

I left alone and I arrived in Canada alone. It was hard leaving my parents, my younger brother and sister, and my grandparents in Iran. 

Why did you choose Canada?

I chose Canada because my uncle, aunt, and older brother were already here in Canada. I came with no expectations, I only wanted to save my life and be with the parts of my family who were already in Canada.

What dreams did you have?

My dreams were to be safe and reunited with my family. I was quite young back then and didn't have many expectations. Back home, my focus was to be safe every time I went out and every time I headed for school. I lived in fear. I was not safe in my country and even now, it is not safe for me to go back. Growing up in Iran, we didn't have freedom of religion. My family was attacked because of our religion and my life was in danger. 

What were your first impressions of Canada?

When I arrived in Toronto at the airport, I saw a woman and man kissing each other in public. I couldn't understand that behaviour because back home, that would never happen in public. Then I saw people at a machine inserting a card and taking money from the machine. I didn't understand how that worked. My uncle helped me get a card when I arrived in Regina, but he didn't explain it to me, he just said you got the magic card now, get your money. I waited at the machine for money to come out, and he just stood there laughing because I thought once I inserted my card, money would come out. When I landed in Regina from Toronto, I was dressed very summery and refused to leave the airport because there was a lot of snow outside. My uncle grabbed a bag of clothes and covered me up. I told my uncle to send me back to Pakistan; I didn't mind the weather in Pakistan. 

What were your biggest adjustments when you arrived in Saskatchewan?

When I arrived, I realized that everything was different. The language, culture and weather were a shock to me, but I had no issues with the food. I came from a culture that was very close, and I couldn't understand why we didn't talk to one another in Canada. There was always noise back home, relatives coming and going. Here, hardly anyone comes to knock or ring my doorbell. I found that hard to cope with. COVID-19 was not fun at all because I missed human connection. 

What misconceptions are there about being a refugee that you want others to know?

There is a strong meaning of what a refugee is: they are politically harassed, their life is in danger, people are tortured. For me, some people use the word refugee without understanding the life we experienced or the true meaning of refugee and that's very hurtful. 

When you call someone a refugee, it's a harsh name for us to have that definition. I've been here a long time and don't like being called a refugee because people don't know what reason we became refugees. They don't know why we left our country. Who are they to judge why I left my country and chose this country? That, for me, is disrespectful when we are judged. Some refugees were rich back where they came from, but weren't safe to stay there. 

I escaped because I was afraid for my life. I was running away because of fear of torture. That stopped me from living my life the way I wanted to live it. Freedom was more important to me. The cost was huge though, I had to leave home. 

Are you safe now to go back home?

No. Because I escaped, my life is always a challenge every time I go home. I went recently, and I was lucky I wasn’t arrested. They asked me to pay a punishment fee. They did not look at me as a citizen of Iran, but they are forcing me as a citizen of Iran to pay the punishment fee. 

Seven years ago, I was working to get my father here, and was waiting for a ticket, but they killed him. The danger still exists. Harassment and torture still exist. 

When I came to Canada, the situation in Iran became worse. The government took everything or destroyed everything.

Here, I had to work and go to school to support my family. I've been a Continuing Care Assistant here for the past 28 years already! I support my family back home to live simple lives. My father used to make good money, but everything was taken away from him, they burned everything, they took their passports, my parents were sent to jail, and my father had a heart attack in jail.

What did you leave in your country that you can't forget?

I left my childhood and my memories behind and quickly became an adult. I left home. It was hard leaving my parents, my younger brother and sister, and my grandparents in Iran. 

How did being a refugee change your priorities?

Marriage was not a priority for me here in Canada, my family was and is always my priority. I started my life in Canada when I was young without much support. So now, I volunteer at the Saskatoon Open Door Society to help newcomers. I dedicate my life to be kind to everyone and help newcomers. We need to be united because love has no language. Love is love. 

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