Montreal·First Person

When I left Iran, I learned to cope with isolation. But the pandemic brought my fears back

During long days of confinement, I discovered that although I was seeking an independent world, I'd become dependent upon my social and work interactions, writes Maryam Azimzadehirani. I realized I had not recognized my fears — instead I'd just tried to escape them.

Pursuing a career in journalism now gives me a new way to connect with others

Maryam Azimzadehirani is seen in a radio studio in Montreal. She writes that returning to journalism helped her deal with pandemic isolation. (Submitted by Maryam Azimzadehirani)

This First Person article is the experience of Maryam Azimzadehirani, a freelance journalist in Montreal. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

The fear of being isolated has long been the most potent stressor in my life. When I was born in Iran in the 1980s, my country had already been at war with Iraq for years. Some of my first memories are of my family isolating in dark underground tunnels to stay safe from bombardment attacks on Tehran.

I stayed in the tunnels with my grandmother during the day while my parents went to work. I would hear about children who lost their families during the war, and my anxiety over being abandoned has been there ever since.

There's an expression in Farsi, my mother tongue: "If you fear something, it will happen to you many times."

Maryam is seen as a child in the fall of 1987. She lived in Tehran with her family during the Iran-Iraq War. (Submitted by Maryam Azimzadehirani)

The experiences that brought me to Canada in 2017 have proven to me that phrase is true.

I had wanted to leave Iran for new opportunities, jobs and adventures. But my main reason was to become independent in this world. I had some freedoms in my birth country, but my choices were limited in Iran's patriarchal society.

I was known as a good scientist and researcher who had worked hard and made valuable contributions. But my academic supervisor favoured men over independent and determined women. The man I wanted to marry asked that I forget about immigration, and remain dependent on him as he commenced his career without taking my dreams seriously.

I tried to manage these limitations by focusing on making an impact in my society, unhindered by gender prejudices. I tried to reach this goal through freelance journalism alongside my academic career, working to give a voice to others.

But journalism was no great honour in Iran, even with big-name outlets. Freedom of speech is limited. And as a female journalist, discrimination and harassment is commonplace. So I decided I had to leave my home to find what I was looking for.

Maryam Azimzadehirani worked at a science publication in Iran before immigrating to Canada. (Submitted by Maryam Azimzadehirani)

I wanted independence, but my fear of being alone was still there. En route to Montreal, I felt like a tiny silkworm beginning its escape from its dark cocoon — the price of its transformation into a moth.

I hoped I would overcome my worst fears, which, as the Farsi quotation foretold, were repeated.

Within a year of moving to Canada, my partner had left me, I had been suspended from my academic position in Iran and I lost my mom to cancer.

I faced the common challenges of immigrants: language barriers, culture shock and integration struggles which isolated me from my new society. However, by the spring of 2020 I'd worked hard to learn French and English, made good friends and tried to overcome my loss and isolation by participating in different Iranian-Canadian community activities.

But as Canada entered the worldwide battle against COVID-19, I again felt the resurgence of my fears over being alone. Self-isolating without my friends or a close relationship felt nightmarish.

During long days of confinement, I discovered that although I was seeking an independent world, I'd become dependent upon my social and work interactions. I realized I had not recognized my fears — instead I'd just tried to escape them.

About two months before the winter 2020 lockdown, I had applied for a short graduate diploma in journalism at Concordia University. I had accepted the admission offer, but I hadn't registered for my courses, perhaps worried about my language skills.

I realized that now was the time to keep pursuing my journalism dreams.

Maryam (centre) is seen covering a union demonstration in Montreal last fall. (Submitted by Maryam Azimzadehirani)

Everything changed for me. I began to produce news podcasts, TV reports and articles in class. I met many wonderful journalists who impacted a society afraid of human contact. We wrote short reports and documentaries about people trying to face their fears. I published my first serious English article about what annoyed me in doing journalism in Iran: the limitations put on women journalists.

Practising journalism in Canada showed me the disappointments, hopes and challenges of so many others, which helped me learn more about who I am. As the great Persian poet, Rumi, once said: "Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you."

I now know that wherever I am, I can find ways to fight loneliness.

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Maryam Azimzadehirani is a freelance journalist. With a background in physical chemistry, she earned her diploma in journalism from Concordia University. She is now a cultural mediator and journalist covering the Iranian and Afghan communities of Montreal.


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