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Douglas Todd: Iranian-Canadians find road to integration is a rocky one

January 8, 2016

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun

For North Americans, Iran is a country they often rank as the world’s “greatest threat.”

Americans, in particular, often judge Iran their most formidable enemy in polls. But Canadians have also done so.

Ex-U. S. president George W. Bush inserted Iran into his notorious “Axis of Evil.” And fears that Iran was interested in building a nuclear arsenal have re-emerged as the country has been thrown into a showdown with Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile many in the West can’t fathom why Iran’s leaders continue to support the brutal president of war-torn Syria, Bashar Assad.

After meeting a number of the 160,000 Canadians of Iranian heritage, however, it’s hard to reconcile the customary North American depiction of Iran as an extremist Islamic society of black-shrouded women and angry men who hate the West, with a country that Iranian-Canadians say is less repressive and more civilized than many recognize.

“Everything has changed,” especially since the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, says Alireza Ahmadian, an Iranian-Canadian specialist in international relations who is researching Metro Vancouver’s housing market for local and foreign developers, most of whom are Iranians.

“The common North American picture of Iran as a country full of veiled women shouting ‘Death to America’ is irrelevant to 98 per cent of the Iranian population, especially young people,” says Ahmadian.

That doesn’t mean the country lacks serious troubles, though.

Rhe hurdles faced by Iranians who move to Canada hinge in part on having to deflect and live down Iran’s official “enemy” designation, which the Conservatives under Stephen Harper dropped on the struggling country of 80 million, often referred to as Persia.

Even separate from highly charged global geo-politics, Ahmadian and other Iranians say, integration into Canada is not easy.

“Many recent Iranian immigrants have their heart in Iran and their feet in Canada,” says Ahmadian.

Iran-Canadians with dual passports face a particular temptation to travel back and forth to Iran as “astronauts,” to handle investments and businesses that are often more rewarding than in Canada.

Like migrants from elsewhere, Ahmadian and others say, many Iranians struggle to embrace North American culture, civil laws and English. Too many, he says, confine themselves only to the “familiar” customs of fellow Iranians.

Home away from home

The North Shore of Metro Vancouver feels at least a bit like home to Iranians.

As Kei Esmaeilpour crosses Lonsdale at 15th Avenue, the engineer looks up the steep hill to Grouse Mountain and says the sight reminds him of the towering Alborz Mountains north of Iran’s capital of Tehran, population 15 million.

“I kind of miss the Alborz Mountains. But the difference between Vancouver and Tehran is that city can get up to almost 40 degrees Celsius in the summer,” he says with a smile.

Urban Canadians need not travel far to pick up at least a superficial taste of Iranian culture — especially if they live in Metro Vancouver or Metro Toronto.

There are more than 36,000 people of Iranian descent in Metro Vancouver, most of whom were born in Iran. Roughly half report to Statistics Canada they are Muslim, which makes Iranians the largest Muslim group in Metro Vancouver based on country of origin.

The first language for almost all Iranian-Canadians is Farsi. And on the North Shore, especially on Lonsdale, Farsi signs pepper drug stores, bakeries, restaurants and real-estate offices.

There is the Cazba and Zeytoon restaurants, the Golestan and Laleh bakeries, Ayoub’s Dried Fruit and the Persian bookstore, Hamsaz. Stacks are everywhere of copies of the ad-crammed Farsi newspaper, Farhang Ma.

An interactive map created by The Vancouver Sun shows Iranians are the largest visible-minority group in large parts of North and West Vancouver.

The Sun’s maps reveal people that Statistics Canada refers to as “West Asians,” almost all of whom are Iranians, are especially predominant in neighbourhoods such as upper and lower Lonsdale and lower Capilano, where they can be up to 20 per cent of residents. Many Iranians also live in the North Shore neighbourhoods of Norgate, Ambleside and Dundarave.

Iranians make up 7.6 per cent of the overall population of West Vancouver, 6.8 per cent of North Vancouver City and 5.1 per cent of North Vancouver District. The only municipality in Canada that has slightly more is the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill, where 7.8 per cent cite Iranian origins.

While some Iranian-Canadians struggle to fit in, those interviewed by The Sun are doing well. They’re also pleased about how some other Iranians are moving upwards in Canadian culture, economics and politics.

They cite with pride that two were elected Liberal MPs in Ontario in the 2015 federal election: Ali Ehsassi of Willowdale and Majid Jowhari of Richmond Hill, both of which are suburbs of Metro Toronto, which has about 76,000 Iranians.

Other Iranian-Canadian notables include the founder of Future Shop, Hassan Khosrowshahi; University of B.C. graduate Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a human-rights activist and wife of former Conservative justice minister Peter MacKay, and ex-CBC Radio superstar Gian Gomeshi, who unfortunately now faces charges of abusing women.

While some Iranians in Canada, particularly the many who continue to travel back and forth to conduct business, worry about being monitored by agents from the Iranian regime, others are ready to talk openly about their lives.

That includes discussing integration challenges.

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