A young Iranian helps Syrian refugees adjust to Canada

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria. Built over 1,300 years ago, it is one of the world's oldest mosques and holiest sites in Islam. Photo: © Shane Davis, photographer, goes ‘where others will not tread’ and uses his photography, social media, speeches, and radio segments to inspire others to take the road less travelled.

Attar, a young Iranian-born immigrant, came to Vancouver only a year ago as a freshman. He studied hard at university and by the end of his first year had made the Dean’s list.

In June, he began volunteer mentoring and event-coordinating for Syrian refugees. In September, Attar won two separate excellence awards for his volunteer work.

He spoke with me on condition of anonymity and I’ve changed his name, but all other details are as he shared with me over a series of conversations and email exchanges from June to October 2016.

In June Attar wrote me in an email, “My experience [volunteering] is fulfilling, enjoyable and, yet, upsetting: I cannot believe the degree of hatred and dislike that many Syrian refugees have about my country because of its interfering and destructive policies. Of course, because of the nature of my volunteer work, we get along very well and I try not to talk about politics, but I can feel how unhappy they become when they hear even Iran's name. I feel sorry for them, for my country, and for the whole world of ignorance.”  

Each time I spoke with Attar I learned more about his culture, his questions about his government and how Iranian foreign policy affects his relationships with Syrian refugees. I was continually impressed by the nuance of his explorations and his willingness to articulate them, all fueled, it seemed to me, by his desire to build meaningful friendships with people of differing beliefs and cultures.

Cultural identity versus government policy

In our conversations, Attar often referred to the indoctrination of growing up in a closed society and that being in the West, in a relatively neutral country and completely different culture, has prompted him to question what he thought was right and true.

Attar studies international relations and foreign policy. He is fluent in his native Persian (Farsi), as well as English. Atypically for an Iranian youth he includes Arabic in his university studies, which he likes to practice with the Syrian refugees he meets. His Iranian friends tease him, but Attar is determined to learn more about the current and historic rifts in the Middle East, even if it means learning Arabic. Ultimately, Attar wants to be in a career where he can facilitate international understanding and harmony.

His deep, unshakable pride in his Persian heritage is clear. Until it was invaded, Persia was a region including and extending beyond what is currently Iran and Afghanistan. Thanks to this civilization, we have bricks and windmills, the first declaration of Human Rights, algebra and trigonometry. Attar knows hundreds of Persian poems by heart, including by literary giants Hafiz and Rumi. He relishes describing how the poems reflect the open mind-set of his culture.

But as an Iranian, he seems caught between loving loyalty to his Persian roots and dismay, guilt and even fear of the Iranian government he grew up with. In an effort to better understand his own identity and the conflicts in the Middle East, Attar decided to volunteer with Syrian refugees.

Attar says he’s changed his mind many times about the role of the Iranian government in the Syrian conflict. “It’s so complicated. There’s a saying in my culture, ‘The border between right and wrong might not be as obvious as you think it is.’”

Iran and Syria: a complicated relationship

Iran and Syria are regional allies and trading partners. There is controversy about direct and indirect Iranian military support to the Syrian government because the Syrian government under Bashar Al-Assad is quelling an ongoing citizens’ uprising by force, including slaughtering its own people. The roots of the conflict are complex with a particularly destabilizing response to an extended drought, due to repressive measures of the Assad government against farmers and historical ethnic divides.

Attar told me: “I used to defend the Iranian government in my mind, because I thought they were promoting stability in the region. Now, though, I feel confused.”

He asked for anonymity because he was worried about how the Iranian government would respond to his efforts on behalf of Syrian refugees. “One of my new [Syrian refugee] friends showed me photos of his house in Damascus [capital of Syria] bombed by weapons my country supplied to the Assad government.”

The Iranian government has supported Russian troops in attacks on Syrian civilians and terrorists; and also provided humanitarian aid to Syria. Seeing the photos of his new friend’s destroyed home truly upset Attar. “It’s an irresolvable paradox,” he reflected.

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