Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We love to think that in Canada, diversity is our strength, but we also need to confront the fact that not everybody here believes that. Immigration is a huge part of what’s made Canada successful, but we also don’t have to look far to find examples of people who fight that every step of the way
Male speaker: They are effing crazy. Are you kidding? 26, 25,000? How are they going to screen these people?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Because for every Canadian politician who warmly welcomes refugees to their new homes.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Canada is a country that was built by immigration.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: There is another Canadian politician who would like us to believe those refugees are taking resources from people who were born here.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall : I have concerns from Saskatchewan people about safety issues. And so we’re not saying Saskatchewan doesn’t want to welcome refugees or Canada shouldn’t, we’re saying let’s not be driven by a deadline.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: To those politicians and the people who agree with them, immigrants and refugees are best spoken about as numbers. This is a political tactic first because 25,000 sounds huge, but more importantly, because when you start to discuss actual people with families and hopes and dreams who risked everything to get here, then using numbers doesn’t work anymore. So today we’re going to meet one of those people and more accurately, we’re going to meet his daughter who is telling her father’s remarkable story in the hopes that we can focus our policy discussions less on the numbers and more on the people. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Shayda Omidvar is the daughter of Amir Omidvar, who is the star of a new podcast called The Hopeful, which you can find here at Frequency Podcast Network. And it’s hosted by Shayda. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry. It’s really easy once you listen. Hey Shayda.
Shayda Omidvar: Hi. How’s it going?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It’s going really well. How’s your podcast?
Shayda Omidvar: It’s doing really well so far. I’m, I’m getting such great feedback from all of my friends and family and colleagues. I’m so excited that this is out in the world. Finally.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, we wanted to talk to you because, you know, your story is, is a small one, but the implications of the immigrant and refugee journey are big ones. So why don’t you just start because the podcast is about him. Tell us about your dad. Who is he?
Shayda Omidvar: So my dad, his name is Amir Omidvar. He’s an Iranian Canadian immigrant. He moved to Canada in the late eighties. So he’s been here for quite a while now, about 38 years. He’s currently retired. Previous to that, he was a mechanic. He owned his own mechanic shop and today, he flips houses with my mom. So that’s, that was their retirement plan. That’s the short form of who my dad, who my dad is.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why did you want to do a podcast about him? Cause you didn’t, I know the story and you didn’t tell me the full story right there.
Shayda Omidvar: I want to tell this story about my dad because first off what he went through is heroic in short and it’s also inspirational. It has influenced me greatly as a person and in, in my daily life, because he has such a crazy amount of sheer will to make his dream come true for himself. And so I think that that’s like such an incredible, inspiring story. And especially with everything that we’re experiencing, you know, in modern times right now with the COVID-19 pandemic and people need help right now, I think. And if they were to hear my dad’s story, it could truly inspire people and insight hope, no matter what kind of situation people are in, and that they don’t have to be a new immigrant or refugee. It’s just about keep, keeping on and being hopeful and trying your best.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: In a couple of minutes, we’re going to get into the specifics of your dad’s story and his travels. But before we do that, I know that part of the reason you’re doing this podcast is because you’ve been hearing these stories forever.
And I think lots of kids have those memories of their parents’ stories. Can you just tell me, like, do you remember the earliest time you heard your dad’s stories about his travels and what did you think of them as a kid and how did he tell them to you?
Shayda Omidvar: So my dad started telling these stories when I was really young. And I think that as I got older, I heard different stories and the stories evolved, and maybe I got a bit more information. But camping was really big for my family. Being able to take me and my family on a little vacation was really important to my dad, having that like intimate time with each other. So that’s where I started to hear the stories, you know, that you hear about like, you know, campfire, fireside chats and that that’s what these were. We were told these stories around the campfire after dinner. At the end of the day, when, you know, there’s nothing really else to do. There was no internet. I didn’t have, you know, cell phones and iPads weren’t really a thing back then. So we just had these stories to hear, and my dad would tell them to me and my sister and my mom. I would, some of these stories I would ask for on repeat. And it was just like, I was hearing them anew every single time. I ate them right up, but it was so exciting. I think. You know, you can you hear about fairytales and heroic stories, but the fact that these stories happen to somebody that I know, and, and my father at the very least, like I, in fact, was so much more interesting to me and I was obsessed since a kid. So I think the, but to answer your question about when was the earliest, I heard these stories. I have a very specific memory of a time we were camping in Tofino. My maternal grandmother was there and her husband, and we’re all sitting around the fire. And I just remember, like, I don’t really remember the story, which story he was telling us, but I just, I remember the glow of the fire on our faces. I remember us laughing. I remember us like being quiet and just focused in on my dad and hearing him tell the story. So I think that’s probably the earliest. I was about maybe nine or 10 at the time of that Tofino camp trip.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You’ve tiptoed around it a little bit so far. So just tell me what were those stories about?
Shayda Omidvar: The stories my dad would tell us were about how he got to Canada. My dad left when he was 22. Iran had just experienced a revolutionary crisis, which, you know, the Ruhollah Khomeini regime came into power and he had to escape. He crossed the borders into Turkey illegally. He did on foot and by himself.
He then found himself in Spain for 20 months. And during that 20 months he made four attempts to get himself into the US, one of them was through Mexico. He flew to Mexico and tried to cross the border into the US there and was imprisoned for two weeks because he could, because he was captured. He made an attempt through Milan and didn’t even make it out of the airport.
He was beaten by the police and sent back again, another time through London, Heathrow airport, and again, faced deportation an additional time. And every single time, it’s a, you know, he’s beaten down and you’d think that he would lose all hope and you’d think that he would give up, but he doesn’t.
And that’s really what’s most remarkable about the story is that how could one person endure so much heartbreak? And his fourth and final attempt was through Canada. And originally he came to Canada and thought this could be a gateway to the US. But when he landed here and handed over a letter to declaring refugee status, the reception that he received from the customs officers, where it was so overwhelmingly welcome to him, that he decided not to make any moves anywhere else.
This was going to be his home. And all it took was the customs officers to just ask if he was hungry. Up until that point for the entire 20 months, no one really had cared for him like, like that. And so that was it. Canada was his home forever moving forward.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Tell me about him leaving Iran at that time. That was a dangerous time in that country.
Shayda Omidvar: Yeah, it’s my dad leaving Iran was a super risky move at the time. There were many Iranians leaving and escaping. The government had shut down borders. The war with Iraq had just started. So no one was allowed in or out. So my dad spoke to a few other people who had heard of different routes and different guides that you could, you could hire to help you cross the border.
Ultimately, my dad decided that it was best for him to do that this alone. And that is what he did. He crossed the borders with gold sewn into the seams of his pants and his jacket and cash sewn into the lining of his jacket. And all he had in his pocket was his Iranian passport. He didn’t carry with him a backpack, not a morsel of food, not a drop of water. He crossed the border in the middle of the night, completely alone, and with no resources to help him.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What was that like for you as a child hearing that story? I mean, I can’t, my I’ve lived a very comfortable life here in Canada. I can’t imagine hearing that kind of story about my father.
Shayda Omidvar: I can’t imagine experiencing anything like that myself to be completely honest. I, I, it’s something that is out of a movie. I’ve dreamt about that story. I’ve visualized it a million different times. It’s quite beautiful to me because one of the things that I remember so clearly him telling me about that night is that it was a clear sky with a full moon. And that is what was guiding him into the direction that he needed to go was the light of the moon. And it’s shining on a snow capped mountain, which was his, which was his Northern star. He needed to go towards that mountain. So thinking about it, why while it’s, while it’s very, like an unbelievable experience also visually is just so it’s so beautiful in my mind and in my imagination. And I hope one day to be able to make it into some sort of moving picture. But it’s, it’s, it’s a moment that’ll forever influence my life and how I, you know, how I am in the world.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How touch and go was it, Shayda, that he would actually make it into either the United States or Canada? That was a perilous time for refugees.
Shayda Omidvar: It was an extremely touch and go experience. His final and successful attempt, kind of happened by luck. I shouldn’t say entirely by luck. He had an, during his time in Spain, he made a lot of friends, other refugees, other Iranian refugees who were in the same situation as him. So really, there was a sense of camaraderie between these other individuals.
They’re all men. And so they were sharing advice. And so, you know, really like for all of them, it was a success, it was a success if at least one of them could make it. So with a combination of luck and the support of his friends, my dad was able to make it over. But honestly, every single moment was, could have landed him like being deported back to Iran. It’s a miracle that at no point did any of these gateways send him back to Iran because they, they easily could have, they could’ve been said they deported him to Spain. And if they were to have sent him back to Iran, he could have been in prison. He could have been tortured and he could have faced the death penalty. And there are moment, many moments that you will hear throughout the first half of the season, you’ll hear about all these moments where he is essentially faced with a near death experience because it’s either, there’s two choices in a crossroads. He’s either deported back to Iran and facing death or whoever he’s, whoever’s blocking his way basically just turns a blind eye and lets him go. And by some miracle at each turning point, somebody has graced him with sheer luck and has turned a blind eye. And that is, I think really what makes this story so special and unbelievable.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Tell me how you convinced your dad to really open up for this podcast. Cause some of the exchanges between you two, trying to get him to really elaborate are quite charming.
Shayda Omidvar: So when I originally approached my dad about this idea to make a podcast, he didn’t, first of all, he didn’t know what a podcast was. So I had to educate him on what that was. And when I first started interviewing him about five years ago with my co-creator Portia Larlee, I mean, luckily Porsche has been my friend for so long and my dad surprisingly likes her. He doesn’t like a lot of people, so it was easy for him to open up to the two of us, but even with us, there were some things that I knew he was, like he hadn’t seen said like, because it was a story I had heard before, or just, you know, some information that I knew about our family and he didn’t say it. And I would ask him later, like, you know, dad, like, you should say that thing, like that moment. And he was like, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t know why people need to know that. And ultimately like what I wanted, what I told him as I was like these personal moments, these intimate moments and these feelings and these thoughts of yours are what people are going to relate to. People need to see you. They need to see what you were feeling and they need to hear you. And if they can see that and understand that they will be hooked because my dad feels so many things. He’s such an emotional person and it’s so genuine. And that is true storytelling to me. I think a successful story is when you’ve been able to really emote feeling and my dad has a lot of them and I told him if you can let people see you and you feel good and let people in. They will hold on really tight and they will be so loyal to the story and they will want to hear it from start to finish. And that’s all it took. He heard me in that moment and he was like, you’re right. I need to be open. And I need to say all of these things and, you know, it’s, he’s, he’s really on a mission to help inspire some other people. And I just coached him through that and reminded him, you know, why we’re here, why we’re doing this and how we will do this successfully.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I want to ask you about a part of the story that will probably resonate most with immigrants and refugees and, and their children. So you mentioned that your father arrives in Canada, he’s asked if he’s hungry and he decides to stay. That’s the start of a whole another story. What happens when you start over like that with nothing in a new country?
Shayda Omidvar: Well, first of all, starting over in a new country is extremely difficult. And I think that is something that a lot of people forget. And the critics of immigrants and refugees, especially in Canada, don’t understand that. And a part of that I think is a part of the fear is not understanding what that person has been with. So what I think is people need to know is like coming to a new country, especially in the way that my dad did, involves a lot of sacrifice. And the transition into a new country is possibly even harder than the journey of arriving to it in itself. And if you don’t have good people surrounding you, then you could be faced with a lot of negativity because there are people in our country who aren’t accepting of newcomers, and they’re not patient with people who are still learning a language. They’re not supportive of anybody getting support from the government. There’s a lot of backlash to be faced. So you have to be extremely, extremely strong. You have to have an incredible sense of self and you have to trust in your vision and you have to trust and why you’ve come to this country and you have to be determined and resilient. Because the transition to making a new life starting over and, you know, part of it is assimilation, it’s not an easy road at all.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Once your dad had arrived, and kind of begun to build his life, what kind of challenges did he face in terms of becoming a success in Canada? I mean, it can’t have been easy and you kind of spoke to just now, you know, some of the, some of the more systemic problems he might’ve faced.
Shayda Omidvar: I know that off the bag, getting a job was really hard because you know, his resume didn’t have any experience locally or in Canada. His English was a work in progress when he got here, he knew some of the language, but of course still learning for the first few years. So I think that just getting that, just landing that first job was the challenge. And then, you know, continuing to evolve from there. Plus when you are new, you’re vulnerable and you’re desperate. You’ll take any job you can get. And sometimes that’s not a very high paying job. You are just making rent. You were just making your grocery bill and whatever else. And it’s a hard life to be able to work up and move up in the world. So I think that for my dad, the hardest part was landing that first job. And just every step that he took to progress was wasn’t easy. I think it took a lot of, of time and patience and determination.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: As you’ve been working on this podcast with your dad, what kinds of stories have you heard either from him or also from other immigrants and refugees about, you know, how varied the experience can be and, and what this kind of story means to them?
Shayda Omidvar: You know, it’s interesting. My dad, when I asked him about his experience as an immigrant and as a newcomer and what he faced, just, you know, integrating to society, my dad will not speak ill of the country and the people within it. He didn’t, he doesn’t really talk about having experienced racism, whether he has or not, perhaps he’s sort of turned a blind eye to it.
And what’s interesting is in the making of this podcast, it’s, it has created a lot more conversations between me and other first-generation children, not just of Iranians, but other immigrants. And we’ve all come to this conversation about our parents and their experiences of racism. And it seems that our parents’ generation are just so grateful to be here, that they don’t even really want to think about it.
They don’t want to, they, or either that, or they take the, you know, those racist moments in stride and it’s, and they’re just so grateful to be in this country, that racism isn’t really something that they spend too much time fretting about. One thing that I will say is that my dad is super grateful for the people that he’s met along the way. And, you know, I mentioned that he was a mechanic, he owned his own mechanic shop, and that was a huge turning point for him, having integrated into society, speaking with, you know, all of his customers, they came from all walks of life. They were mostly white because he opened up the mechanic shop in an affluent neighbourhood in North Vancouver. So a lot of his customers were lawyers, doctors, principals of schools. And he got to meet so many people. And I know that he has said that he really owes it to his shop to have met these wonderful people. And a lot of them were white. And a lot of them, you know, saw my dad as a reputable businessman and, and not an Iranian immigrant.
They saw him for the work that he did and the respect that he showed them. And with that, they were willing to welcome him into, you know, into their worlds. A world that, you know, it’s not very common for her., you know, a white doctor living in North Vancouver to be inviting a Iranian immigrant mechanic to their home for Christmas dinner. But that is the experience that I had as a kid. We used, we did, my dad did make friends with these people and he’s very grateful for these people having accepted him and seeing him for who he truly is, and not just as an immigrant.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Have you talked to your father about kind of the different views of the country that you just described between first generation immigrants and second generation immigrants? Have you told them how, you know, you and other second generation kids have, have talked about racism and its impacts in a way that, that he’d prefer not to?
Shayda Omidvar: I, a few years ago when I started these interviews with my dad, I did bring up the idea of racism. And that’s when, you know, he responded by saying that he does, he hasn’t really experienced it, or if he has it’s, you know, it, he didn’t take it too personally. And then when I expressed to him that I personally had felt racism, he was to be honest, he was actually quite surprised. He wasn’t expecting it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Really?
Shayda Omidvar: Yeah. He, I was surprised that he was surprised. I was like, you know, I’ve had some pretty traumatic experiences of racism, especially as a kid and growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood of North Vancouver, you know, elementary school into high school. All of the people that I was surrounded by were majority white. And I mean, although I, I, you know, I have lovely friends out of high school. My co-creator of this podcast, her name is Portia Larlee and she wrote this with me and I met her. We’ve been friends since high school. So obviously I met amazing people, but when I brought up this idea of racism to my dad and not just for his experience, but my experience, he was shocked and he didn’t really understand. And he was puzzled that I had experienced this. So since then I haven’t brought it up to him again. There’s, I’ve had sort of like maybe new ideas for another part two, another podcast following this, because it seems that these other first generation people that I’m talking to also are very, are craving these conversations. It seems like this conversation isn’t happening enough. Our conversation like me and these other people, that was the first time they were talking about it, the first time I was talking about it and the first time I was able to, like, we were able to relate to somebody else about these experiences. So there’s definitely a place for these conversations. There’s definitely a want and a need for it. And I think when the time comes, I would absolutely talk to my dad about this as well.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: In the meantime, everybody should tune in and hear his story. Cause he’s a, he’s a wonderful and funny man. Thank you for joining us today, Shayda.
Shayda Omidvar: Thank you for having me. And I hope that everyone enjoys the story. It’s my dad has truly bared his soul and which wasn’t an easy experience for him and an easy process, but he wants everyone to hear it and he hopes that he can inspire at least just one listener, if not all of them.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Shayda Omidvar, host of The Hopeful, which you can listen to right now at frequencypodcastnetwork.com or as you know, by now, wherever you get your podcasts, which is exactly where you can find The Big Story and also at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also talk to us anytime on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN, you could find us and Shayda and the Hopeful and everything else at frequency pods on Twitter, on Facebook and on Instagram. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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