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From Tehran to Toronto

Iranian expatriates enjoying Iranian food at a local restaurant in Toronto
Iranians have worked hard to retain their own culture in Canada

Canada has one of the largest and most successful Iranian immigrant communities in the world, with an estimated 85,000 living in the country, according to the nation's 2003 census.

In the first of a two-part series, BBCPersian.com examines their lives in Canada, asking members of the community how they have managed to strike the awkward balance between integrating in their new country and retaining their own traditions.


From a general viewpoint, the Iranian community in Canada seems relatively successful.

It takes time and effort to understand this country and how to live here
Mohsen
Iranian immigrant
So much so, in fact, that an entire area in the Canadian city of Toronto, where many Iranian businesses are located, is often referred to affectionately as "Tehranto".

Iranians are a visible presence in the city, involved in all areas of commerce and selling everything from kebabs to nuts, books, handicrafts, music, films. They also run many restaurants.

There is even a 24-hour Persian radio station operating from the city, providing a vital outlet for a news-hungry expatriate community.

It is the political and economic hardships in Iran - and the difficulty of immigrating to the US and other Western European countries - that have led to Canada becoming a favourite destination of Iranian immigrants.

The country has consistently followed an open-door policy towards immigrants and political refugees, a policy which has permitted a steady stream of immigrants from Iran.

Steady stream

The first Iranians to enter Canada were students, who flocked to North American universities around 1965 when Iran's wealthy sent their children abroad for higher education.

Shop signs written in Persian in Toronto
The Iranian community's presence can be seen on Toronto's streets

The earliest immigrants worked mostly in highly professional jobs, as doctors, engineers, lawyers, nurses and dentists.

Those who came later chose entrepreneurship, creating construction companies, restaurants, bakeries, dry-cleaning shops, grocery stores, repair shops, and computer stores.

After Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranians seeking political refuge from the new Islamic Republic also started to arrive in Canada.

A brutal combination of the Iran-Iraq War and both religious and political persecution subsequently provided the impetus for more middle class Iranians to follow in their footsteps.

And in the last 10 years, there has been another wave of immigration applications to Canada by educated and skilled Iranians - especially those of the so-called "Revolution Generation".

Learning to adapt

Today, Iranian immigrants in Canada are concentrated mainly in the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec.

Iranian journalists at work on Persian radio station 'Seday-e Rooz', or Today's Voice
Persian radio stations cater to local communities 24 hours a day

But despite the size of these communities, some of those who arrived in the post-Revolution wave have struggled to adjust to life in the new country.

Mohsen, an Iranian who came to Montreal in 1998, told BBCPersian.com that arriving in Canada did not mean, for him, that he automatically became assimilated into society.

"It takes time and effort to understand this country and how to live here," he says.

"And for some the greatest challenge for immigrants is adapting to the culture, not necessarily the language."

Here or there?

For Leili, an Iranian student who arrived in Canada when she was 18, relations between young men and women in Canada have proved a slight culture shock.

Iranians at seminar in Montreal organised by BBCPersian.com
Some Iranian expats find the culture clash awkward to deal with

In Canada, she says, young women and men can be friends without having a sexual relationship. She says that, for Iranian immigrants, understanding this will take some time.

"The problem for immigrants like me, who have came here as an adult, is that we feel we belong neither to this country, nor even to our own country," she says.

"The only people who would understand you are those are in the same situation as you."

Another young Iranian woman, also named Leili, says she is fascinated by the fact that, in countries like Canada, a woman can travel on her own. In Iran, this would lead to her being questioned by authorities or even punished by her family.

But this liberation, she feels, has had its adverse effects.

"As a woman, you do not get the support that you usually get in Iran from family members," she says.

"Here you have to stand on your own and be independent."



SEE ALSO
Iranian penfriends: Tehran to Toronto
20 Feb 04 |  Middle East
Country profile: Iran
31 Mar 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Iran
14 Apr 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Canada
20 May 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Canada
20 May 05 |  Country profiles

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