Iranian Baha’i refugees the subject of Carleton University symposium

Speakers at the Symposium (l to r) Janet Grinsted, Douglas Martin, Gerry Van Kessel . © Baha'i Community of Canada Toronto, Ontario, 1 October 2015 (CBNS) —

“You will be scattered like gems across the country.”

That is what Mina Sanaee recalled Douglas Martin telling her when he visited Baha’i refugees in Pakistan in the early 1980s. Mr Martin was the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada at that time, when Canada was the first country to open its doors to Baha’i refugees fleeing violent persecution in Iran. “Each Baha’i [who left Iran] faced a supremely painful decision [to leave] after patiently enduring daily acts of violence and injustice…. We were dispirited,” Ms Sanaee said, but “he encouraged us with this message.”

Eventually, some 2300 Baha’is would come to Canada as part of a special program designed by the Government of Canada during the 1980s, in cooperation with the National Spiritual Assembly. As a result of this cooperation, the Universal House of Justice, the international governing council of the Baha’i community, established the International Baha’i Refugee Office at the Canadian Baha’i National Centre. It was closed in 1989 as the work diminished, although since that time, thousands more Baha’is have arrived in Canada as refugees and become citizens and contributing members of society.

On September 21st, Carleton University hosted a one-day symposium on the Iranian Baha’i Refugee Movement to Canada, 1981-1989. About 100 people attended the event, including academics, civil servants, students, and community members. The conference was sponsored by the Baha’i Community of Canada, the Canadian Immigration Historical Society, and Carleton University’s Centre for Public History, Migration and Diaspora Studies Initiative, and Department of History.

Prof Howard Adelman, a leading scholar in refugee studies, observed that the Baha’i community in Iran was targeted because they “reflect the spirit of modernity in their universalism”. He called the Islamic Revolution a “counter-revolution,” and a form of “anti-modernism” and “anti-universalism” that targeted the most modern element of society. During the 1970s in Canada, a vibrant civil society had developed and worked with the government to create a unique refugee policy framework that allowed organized groups to sponsor refugees. Mike Molloy, former Director-General of Refugee Affairs, commented that new government policies focused on oppressed minorities and allowed for private sponsorship. So, the government was able to respond relatively quickly to the needs of Baha’is from Iran.

Gerry Van Kessel, who was Director-General of Operations for Refugee Affairs in the 1980s, commented that his work on the Baha’i program had been a “career highlight”. When Douglas Martin approached the government for their assistance, there was an existing structure to facilitate the settlement of Baha’is from Iran. However, Van Kessel observed that what made the program work was the “trust and credibility” developed between Baha’i representatives and public servants. “That’s how you get cooperation… and your credibility with us made this work.”

Participants in the conference also heard from the perspective of refugees and civil servants in the field. All of those who worked on the program recalled the love and devotion of Mona Mojgani, who served as the Director of the International Baha’i Refugee Office until it was dissolved in 1989. Mojgani’s daughter, Susan, shared her recollections of all of her “children” (the Baha’i refugees) as well as her “comrades in arms” (the Canadian public servants).

“Mona made our jobs easier… she helped us to organize the Baha’is for us, and she understood how we worked. We trusted her,” said Dennis Scown, who was the immigration program manager in Islamabad during the 1980s.

Mark Davidson, now Director-General at Citizenship and Immigration Canada, was on his first posting to Islamabad, and he recalled being astounded by the remote locations to which Baha’is were resettled. More than 100 local communities as far away as Sandspit, BC, were sponsoring Baha’is. Afsoon Houshidari was four years old when her family fled Iran, and she shared her personal anecdotes and recollections of waiting for resettlement in Karachi and the excitement of preparing for departure to come to Canada. She only recently discovered that her family’s visas were signed by her co-panelist, Dennis Scown.

The symposium also heard about different experiences of Baha’is who came to Canada at that time, as well as from the perspective of community members who welcomed the arrival of the refugees. Panelists commented that the each experience was unique, and many of them involved trauma and great difficulty. Their resilience was often strengthened by their Baha’i beliefs and the unique cross-cultural connections made with their co-religionists and other Canadians.

The day concluded with final reflections about placing the Baha’i refugee program in a wider context – as a case study from which we can learn about Canadian history and public policy. As the organizers described, the symposium was intended to capture insights from various actors in the Baha’i refugee program with a view to advancing other efforts to research this movement as an episode in Canadian immigration history.

More information about the symposium is available here: symposium.bahai.ca
For further background on the Baha’i refugee program, can be found here:
http://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2013/07/a-quiet-exodus/