Refugee

By John Tavares

Years ago, I was a journalism student at Centennial College in Scarborough and East York, but I was from the town of Sioux Lookout in Northwestern Ontario. I needed a place to live in Toronto while I was a student, and I found a dingy but spacious and airy room to rent in a student cooperative, a ramshackle house in the gentrified Annex neighbourhood at the boundary of the sprawling University of Toronto campus. Most residents of the co-op houses were students at the University of Toronto, a few of whom held me in disdain since I was a community college student studying a trade, journalism, not an academic discipline. I understood the source of their animosity—journalists can be a pushy bunch, invading privacy, casting a jaded and cynical eye on personalities and events—but I had an assignment to write, a profile for a feature writing course, and I stumbled across a subject for my piece in one of my roommates, an Iranian refugee.

Amir Zahed, a thin man with receding black hair and sunken eyes, passed the photograph showing himself with his narrow arm around a young man, drunk and sweaty. Beside them sat Rosemary Horvat wearing a pressed blue shirt, black tie, and suit jacket as well as a red headband around her dark blonde hair, which was neatly pulled back. Holding a filtered cigarette in her hand, she gazed at Zahed with a broad smile and an expression that I construed as unfettered admiration. The fading, colour snapshot had been taken on the patio of the Futures Bakery café on Bloor Street. A security guard at Hazelton Lanes and a York University student, Rosemary had been a close friend and co-worker with Zahed. He had worked part-time and full-time with her as a security guard at the same high-end shopping mall in Yorkville, a pricey row of luxury designer shops and boutiques.

After spending two years as an Iranian medical doctor several kilometers behind the front lines during the Iran-Iraq war, Zahed thought he had witnessed enough violence and suffering. Rosemary Horvat had recently been found dead with stab wounds in her neck in the hallway of her home in a nondescript neighbourhood in the Dufferin and Bloor Street area. Her father had already stabbed to death her mother in another room of the house. (Later, I even read Toronto daily newspaper accounts of the horrific crime, not that I was incredulous of his account, but for corroboration and because I had an insatiable appetite for details about crime and politics as a news junkie.)

Then tragedy struck from nowhere again. After Horvat was murdered, another friend, a young Iranian man living in Toronto, committed suicide. For Zahed, the homicides and suicide were part of a seemingly endless series of tragedies and misfortunes.

Born in 1958 in Ahwaz, Iran, Zahed was three years old when he moved with his family to the capital of Iran. After finishing high school in Tehran, he entered medical school in 1980 at “universally recognized” Tabriz University, located in Tabriz, Azerbaijan. The Islamic Revolution in Iran had forced the closure of universities for two years, so the medical curriculum took him nine years instead of the planned seven. During those years of turmoil and upheaval, Islamic fundamentalist authorities decided which students possessed the correct political and religious attitudes, and which were therefore allowed to continue with their postsecondary school education.

“I was a student during the best years of the Shah and the worst years of the revolution.” Zahed chuckled. “Back then, I was interested in helping the prostitutes.”

I realized I wasn’t the only person with a fascination with sex trade workers then. In fact, for another journalism course, I had journeyed downtown and wandered the seedier blocks of Yonge Street and adjacent neighbourhoods, interviewing homeless youth who occasionally resorted, for the purposes of economic survival, to turning tricks for quick cash.

Zahed, his brow furrowed, sat in the cramped room of the student co-op house on Huron Street where he rented a large room with a dormant fireplace on the first floor. He suggested we step out for pizza and coffee, and we strode on the sidewalk along the streets that bordered and lay a lattice over the University of Toronto’s campus. He walked just about everywhere he went in Toronto, and he caused me some alarm when he stepped into the middle of traffic zipping along Bloor Street West. Just last week I had seen a man lying dead on the pavement after being struck by a speeding courier truck when he tried to cross Bloor Street. I paused and looked about vigilantly since I believed that if I ever died prematurely in Toronto, it would be as a pedestrian at the hands of a motorist.

“Certain age groups were involved in the Islamic Revolution,” Zahed said. “Those who were old didn’t suffer much. Those born at the time didn’t know what was going on. Those who suffered the most and had the most change and damage done to their lives were the middle-aged and students.”

We strode through the bustling Toronto night, light snow flurries and loose newspapers gusting in the wind. Bloor Street was lined with empty cardboard boxes and recycle bins full of plastic containers and paper cartons. In a bright Pizza Pizza restaurant at the intersection of Bloor Street West and Spadina Avenue, Zahed ordered a large slice of vegetarian pizza laden with tomato slices, chopped onions, and melted shreds of mozzarella cheese. He ate the pizza slice standing while I, scribbling at a furious pace in my reporter’s notebook, struggled to keep pace with his succinct answers to my interview questions. Because of Rosemary Horvat’s funeral, where he was an honorary pallbearer, the security firm had given him a day off work.

After Zahed completed his medical education, earning a 3.5 grade-point average, he was obliged by conscription laws to serve in the military. During the Iran-Iraq war in the late eighties, he practiced medicine, treating wounded and injured soldiers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and members of the militia, who were far less motivated to fight than Guard members were.

“It was the first station where the army would bring injured soldiers. The hospital was underground and had a wooden roof covered with dirt and sand so the enemy wouldn’t find where we were.”

Soon, though, artillery shells and bombs rained down around the encampment, and medics, nurses, doctors, and surgeons, treating casualties from the militia and armies, realized the location of the hospital was no longer a secret to the Iraqi enemy. Late in his military service, Zahed received minor injuries during a gas attack.

Zahed finished eating his pizza and gently wiped the corners of his mouth and his thin lips with a paper napkin. He folded up the paper plate over the remainder of the thick crust, pushing the crumpled mess in the trap door of the packed wastebasket.

I was surprised that Zahed had eaten a pizza slice in front of me because he never ate meals in the student co-op dining room. When he ate food in the house, he usually only prepared and consumed his meals after midnight. He seemed to prefer the peace and quiet. He relished his privacy, eating, whenever I happened to visit the refrigerator for a midnight snack in the kitchen, with his hand covering his mouth.

We strolled next door to a Second Cup café, ordered coffee, and I continued to interview him, although his story was compelling, and seemingly narrated itself.

“I was a not a surgeon, but I was confronted with many cases where I had to perform surgery to stabilize the patient before sending him to a regular hospital an hour from us. I was mostly doing tracheotomies. I would insert plastic cannulas between the ribs into the chests of soldiers hit by shrapnel, bullets, and debris. I would cover the injury, put a tube inside, and suck the air, blood, and waste from the chest and lungs. In emergencies, I performed amputations.”

During his military service, Zahed witnessed close-up horrors and mutilations that numerous doctors and thousands of ordinary Canadians put together would never witness in a lifetime. Zahed sipped his Irish cream coffee and looked away as a woman argued with her partner at a nearby table. He stirred the coffee with a brown, plastic stick and looked out the window towards Bloor Street where a man hawked copies of a community newspaper. He tried to explain the stress of warfare by using the analogy of a person walking down the street becoming a witness to a motor vehicle accident. A pedestrian, struck by car, is knocked to the pavement. The witness observes blood pouring from the accident victim’s head as she is taken away in a stretcher and ambulance. The witness is shaken, and lives with those vivid memories for the rest of his life. However, Zahed saw far worse injuries and suffering almost every day for two years at the frontlines of the battlefield.

“In my experience as a physician at the front, I saw patients with everything from malingering to minor injuries to head injuries to death.”

Two months after Zahed finished his military service, the war was over. During his service in the Iran-Iraq war, Zahed said, “I wrote an open letter to the Islamic government of Iran, urging it to stop this war because there was no reason for young people to be killed.”

This was the only part of Zahed’s account I thought potentially unreliable or slightly incredulous. Zahed struck me as the type of person who was opposite of a dissident; he seemed conservative, a conformist, adaptive to the status quo and content with his past social position and career, not a dissenter who would protest, even in the more cerebral context of a letter. However, I realized that a negative experience as a protestor might have beaten him down, made him resigned and compliant. I had certainly taken a more complacent role to the wrongs of society after I saw the economic, social, and personal tolls reasonable dissension could take on an individual.

"Warriors" by Kamyar Adl

“Warriors” by Kamyar Adl

A few months after completing his military service, intelligence agents from the military visited him and started questioning him. They interrogated him about his political activities and connections.

“It was just talk, saying the war is stupid and people are getting killed for nothing. But in Iran, that kind of rhetoric was dangerous.”

Later, while he examined a patient at his clinic, two agents entered the room and said it was time for him to leave. He protested that he was in the middle of a physical examination of a patient, but they were adamant and pressing, and seized him by the arms. So began a frightening ordeal in the detention of Iranian secret police that lasted several days during which he wasn’t allowed to speak with his wife.

This was the other part of his account that surprised me. At times, Zahed seemed effeminate, or at least fey, and I hadn’t expected a man of his feminine qualities to be married. Because I had been naïve about homosexuality and gender, and how the lines blurred when I was a younger man, I had gotten the impression from him, through no fault of his own, that he was gay.

Blindfolded, he was taken to a basement cell in an unknown building where he was held in involuntary detention for three days and nights. Intelligence agents continued to interrogate him, asking about his political views and activities. The guards didn’t torture him, but they intimidated him and behaved aggressively. He didn’t know the time of the day, and he wasn’t allowed to use the washroom. After three days, secret service agents brought him back to the offices of his medical practice.

“My wife and mother were crying. They had practically gone crazy. They had gone searching for me at different police stations.”

Then Zahed received a telephone call from one of his politically active friends, warning him that secret agents with the intelligence services were about to arrest him and that he was in imminent danger. When he called home, his mother told him officers from the Iranian secret police had swooped down on the house, searched the rooms and his desk, and had taken away books and papers. They were asking for his whereabouts. That helped Zahed decide that the time had arrived for him to leave—and quickly. That night he slept at a friend’s house. Having already obtained a false passport, he fled the next night by bus across the Iranian border under the cover of darkness into Turkey, where he stayed for two weeks. With Toronto as his final destination, Zahed flew from Turkey to Switzerland, where he stayed overnight in the Zurich international airport. He travelled with other Iranians presented to immigrations officials as members of his family. Because of the black market exchange rate on American dollars, the trip cost him about two hundred thousand dollars. The financial cost of fleeing his native land, though, may have been the least of his worries.

In early January 1991, Zahed flew into Toronto. The passenger jetliner circled Pearson International Airport several times because the airways were congested and the pilots had zero visibility. When Zahed glanced out the passenger jet window, he saw nothing but snow flurries. In airport customs, wearing a windbreaker and shivering, he admitted he didn’t possess a valid passport and confessed to border officers he was seeking refugee status in Canada for political reasons and to escape persecution. Immigration authorities detained him and asked him a wide variety of questions.

“They told me to come back in a week. I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know how to get a taxi. I came out of a big airport. I didn’t know where to go. I asked the taxi driver to take me to the cheapest hotel.”

The taxi driver drove him to a high-priced hotel. The clerk recommended a cheaper place, and Zahed stayed at a budget hotel for one night before he settled into a Salvation Army Hostel on College Street near Spadina Avenue. Then one Sunday afternoon, Zahed took a walk in a snowstorm along Bloor Street near Dufferin Street. The walk was long and contemplative, as he trudged through the snow piled around the parked cars. He spotted a house advertising rooms for rent. He straightened and smoothed his clothes, combed his sparse hair, and knocked on the door. He explained his need for affordable accommodations to Nada Horvat. Nada was kind and understanding and took him to another house down the street. She became Zahed’s landlady, and he stayed at the house for more than a year. She was later murdered by her husband.

Since Zahed felt guilty receiving social assistance, he started searching for a job. After five months of dropping off applications with dozens of fast food restaurants downtown, he found work as a security guard at Hazelton Lanes on Avenue Road in Yorkville, working with the daughter of his landlady, Rosemary Horvat. He graduated to full-time shifts and became great friends with her.

Because of a shortage of internships for medical students and a low regard for Iran’s system of medical education, Zahed wasn’t able to practice medicine in the province of Ontario or elsewhere in Canada, even though he passed an accreditation examination and qualified for an internship. When I interviewed him, Zahed was a University of Toronto graduate student, working towards a master’s degree in science. As part of neurophysiology studies, he conducted research in how learning processes and memory change brain structure.

Zahed, normally reserved and calm, suddenly grew emotional and impassioned as he described the toll that becoming a refugee had taken on him. “I lost my wife. I was doing everything I could with immigration officials to bring her to Canada, and I told her about my efforts. But she grew angry with me because she thought I had abandoned her. So she left Turkey and returned to Iran.”

Zahed described the other losses: his medical license, his social position, a beautiful home, a comfortable lifestyle. His mother also fell ill and distressed as Iranian officials harassed her with visits and questioning.

Still, Zahed made friends in the student co-op residence and at The University of Toronto, and he was a popular figure to those who lived and worked with him. Craig Brown, a third year psychology student at the University of Toronto and house manager of the student co-operative was also Zahed’s friend and had known him since the end of August when he moved into the house at the start of the academic year.

“Amir is finding the transition into Canada a little difficult, I think, because the value system of our culture is so different from his own. In his country, things like drinking and premarital sex aren’t condoned. His culture has more Puritan ways, and Amir is very decent and respectable.”

Craig rinsed the disposable razor under the running water of the cracked bathroom sink and applied more shaving cream to the hollow cheeks of his narrow face. “Once, people were swearing like crazy in the lounge during a ping pong game, but Amir as usual wasn’t saying anything obscene. He never swears. Amir is extremely polite—almost to a fault, almost to the point of subjugating his own needs to the point where others can easily take advantage of him.”

Brown described an incident that occurred in Zahed’s neurobiology lab when somebody had taken over the experimental apparatus that he had spent an hour setting up. The person asked if he could share the apparatus because it was difficult to set up in a proper way, and ended up using it for hours—to Zahed’s detriment. Brown had seen other instances when Zahed had allowed people to take advantage of him because, as Brown put it, “he doesn’t know the proper protocol or manners—or the lack thereof—in our society.”

“Amir is faced with this enormous difficulty, this Herculean challenge, of having to cope. He’s trying to adjust to this culture. Meanwhile, he’s worrying about his mother, feeling guilty because he left her, and he’s also trying to live with the psychological atrocities of the war,” Brown said. The fact that Zahed had entered a post-graduate program in an extremely difficult field of study didn’t help, either. His studies in neuroscience were made even more difficult and complicated by the language barrier. “It’s one thing to learn a language at a conversational level, but it’s another thing to learn a language at an academic level in an extremely difficult field of study. If you’re reading a scientific paper or abstract, mistaking the meaning of one word can confuse the meaning of the entire paper. All these stressors put together must seem overwhelming to him at times, but he doesn’t show it.”

Zahed himself explained how doctors sometimes evaluated life stresses on a person based on a point system. According to that point system, he would have experienced so many stresses and his score would have been so high, it wouldn’t have registered. His score would have placed him far past the level where a person was especially vulnerable to psychological and physical breakdown.

I was curious about life changing decisions and turning points. If he had known in Iran what he now knew about the fate that awaited him, the social and economic challenges associated with becoming a refugee to Canada, would he have been so critical of the government, which surely he knew did not take kindly to criticism. Gazing down at the Formica table, Zahed looked weary, almost shell-shocked, and shook his head, saying nothing.

Over the years, after I moved away from Toronto and returned to my hometown, I lost track of Amir Zahed, although I suppose an advanced search of his name on the Internet through a search engine like Google, which didn’t exist then, might easily reveal information about him. He had told me he felt he had no choice but to immigrate to the United States, where he hoped to conduct research in neurobiology at an American university, acquire a doctorate, and perhaps practice medicine. I suspect he has found his place in the world, and his niche in the land of freedom, opportunity, and the American Dream, the United States. Around the same time as I was a roommate to Amir, I met a lawyer who acted as a reliable source, and counselled me on aspects of libel law and media conflict of interest for two different journalism law and ethnics term papers. I remember a favorite phrase of his, although I am not certain in which context it arose: “Let sleeping dogs lie.” Besides, shortly after I graduated from the journalism program at Centennial College, I realized I could not earn a living in the profession—at least not in the place where I chose to live. I currently work in financial services, as a broker for one of the largest chartered banks in Canada. Amir, I suspect, has prospered and found peace and freedom from tyranny and oppression of differing varieties at last.

 

John Tavares was born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. He is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. He has being writing fiction since 1986. He has a chapbook published by Plowman Press, and his short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Blood & Aphorisms, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone (Canada), Broken Pencil, Tessera, Windsor Review, Paperplates, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, The Writing Disorder, Gertrude, Turk’s Head Review, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Bareback Magazine, and Rampike. He has also had a dozen short stories and creative nonfiction pieces published in The Siren, Centennial College’s then student newspaper.

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