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Iranians in Quebec City channel their pain into action as they watch mass protests unfold from afar

Quebec City Iranian community trying to support relatives and friends back home after protests erupt in Iran following death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

Violence following Mahsa Amini's death has many worried for family and friends back home

Ava is part of Quebec City's Iranian community trying to keep tabs on friends and family during the most recent protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini. Ava is not her real name. CBC News is protecting her identity because she fears for her family’s safety in Iran for speaking publicly. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

Ava says it feels like just yesterday that she was on campus at a university in Tehran.

But her life before immigrating to Canada four years ago seems so distant now, it also feels like "ages ago."

Sitting outside the library on the campus of Université Laval in Quebec City, the PhD student recalls all the things she misses about her life in Iran.

Studying in the café next to university, chatting with friends, going to the cinema, visiting her grandparents and planning picnics and road trips.

"The streets in Tehran beside my university were very beautiful during fall. It was exactly like here," said Ava, looking up at the trees, which have turned a hue of yellow.

Along with the fond memories of growing up in Iran surrounded by family and friends in an "open-minded community," Ava notes there are darker reminders, some which speak to why she left the country in 2018.

Ava is not her real name. CBC News is protecting her identity because she fears for her family's safety in Iran for speaking publicly.

"My university was kind of the open-minded university among all the universities," she recalled. "We were not forced to wear very tight hijabs."

"(But) even in my university, there were some professors that were coming to us and telling us, you know, you're not allowed to come to university (without tight hijabs)," said Ava, referring to the strict modesty rules in Iran which were implemented in 1979.

"I was tired of that prison."

group of people stand together with signs.
Iranians in Quebec City gathered outside Quebec's National Assembly Sept. 21 to show support to those in Iran protesting the death of Mahsa Amini. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

Ava says she made the decision to leave her country and pursue her education in Canada but she has struggled with how to navigate and support friends and family from afar as unrest built and protests erupted in her home country.

Most recently, Ava was one of the hundreds of Iranians in Quebec City who attended protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iran.

Amini died on Sept. 16 following her arrest by Iran's morality police in Tehran for allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely.

Her death sparked international condemnation and protests in, and outside of, the country.

Dealing with the anxiety of being disconnected from family and friends after weeks of protests and violent government crackdowns in Iran, Ava says expatriates like herself have been trying to show support any way they can.

'My heart is in Iran': Fears over family and friends' safety

Ava says that when she first heard about Amini's death she felt "panicked" and saddened she couldn't protest alongside many of her friends and family members — many of whom, she says, are in danger of getting killed, injured or arrested in the demonstrations.

"But I'm here, freely living," said Ava. "The feeling is why I'm not there to fight with them …(Any) person who is arrested, it can be me. I want to be there and fight because I love my country. For a while … I lost my hope."

While some of Ava's friends joined her in Canada, her parents, other friends and two of her siblings are still there.

"It's been three years that I haven't seen my parents and my siblings. Every day I wake up and I'm like, 'what if I don't see them anymore?' And that's very hard.… That's all the time in your mind. It's been awhile I'm not eating well, I'm not cooking, I'm not doing my routine. And I have so many nightmares."

Quebecers with connections to Iran continue to protest against the autocratic régime in that country. CBC's Rachel Watts brings us a conversation that reflects why these protests are taking place, here and across the globe­.

Parvin Ramezani, who immigrated to Quebec City eight years ago, says she too has experienced a lot of anxiety over the past few weeks.

"My heart is in Iran. I cannot sleep very well. I cannot eat. I cannot focus on my work," said Ramezani. "I grew up there. I have lots of friends there who couldn't immigrate. I have friends in prison and they are like family for me."

Parvin Ramezani immigrated to Quebec City in 2014 with her husband. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

Supporting those back home

Ramezani says she needs to channel her anger. Although she wants to travel back to be with friends and family, she says doing so would just get her arrested.

"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 City has come together to support each other.

"Pain can (bring) people together and we feel like we are a 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 one very, very important goal and this is very sure … we want to have peace."

Karim, who immigrated from Iran to Quebec City around 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 publicly.

"We cannot do much for Iran these days except for spreading the word, spreading the message of Iranian people who want revolution," said Karim. "They are fighting for freedom. That's why the principal slogan for 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 nations, in the hope they might intervene and "stop legitimizing the Iranian regime."

Parvin Ramezani and Keivan Karimzadeh met with CBC in Quebec City at Place d'Youville. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

Remembering life in Iran

One of Ramezani's first memories in Iran is being told to wear a hijab.

Walking on the street with her mother in her hometown of Ahvaz, two men stopped Ramezani's mother and asked why her daughter's hair was not covered. She was in Grade 1.

"I was ashamed of myself, (thinking) why did I do something wrong?" recalled Ramezani.

Her childhood memories of the morality police are part of what made her promise never to have children in Iran.

As someone who participated alongside numerous students at some major demonstrations before leaving the country, she swore she would never bring a daughter into the world 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 — about the age Ramezani was when she started wearing the mandatory hijab.

"When we arrived here, we learned that we were going to have a girl. I promised her to make the world a better place for her, for both of them," said Ramezani.

"I promised them every year on their birthday … I do my best to make the world a better place for them."

Feeling hopeful: 'the world can hear us'

Last month, Ramezani and her daughter Viana participated in the first of many protests organized in Quebec City. She says, this time around, the protests feel different.

Parvin Ramezani's daughter Viana attended the protest outside of the National Assembly of Quebec on Sept. 21. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

"I have hope this time, because this time I feel the world can hear us and I feel that the Iranian regime is afraid of that," said Ramezani.

Roozbeh Tajik, who immigrated to Canada about three years ago, says he is hopeful after seeing how the world responded to Mahsa's death. He says he believes it could be a catalyst for bigger change in Iran.

"I am optimistic we are going to have a good country, a great country and democratic country, and a free country," said Tajik.

He notes that when he was younger, he didn't know things could be different in Iran.

"I did not know what other alternatives would be until I reached the age of 18, until I entered the university, knowing that there is something called freedom, knowing that there is something called democracy and justice," said Tajik.

"At the same time I knew I was not free. I knew I was not allowed to express my ideas freely."

He says, fortunately, Iranians in and around Quebec City are supportive of each other and they feel deeply for friends and family on the ground in their homeland.

"The people of Iran, who are people right now on the streets… it's (as though) myself I am on the street and I am being beaten and I am being shot," said Tajik.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Watts

CBC journalist

Rachel Watts is a journalist with CBC News in Quebec City. Originally from Montreal, she enjoys covering stories in the province of Quebec. You can reach her at rachel.watts@cbc.ca.

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