When I left Iran, I learned how to deal with the isolation. But the pandemic brought my fears back


This first-person article is the experience of Maryam Azimzadehriani, a freelance journalist based in Montreal. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, visit the FAQs.

The fear of being isolated has long been the biggest stressor in my life. When I was born in Iran in the 1980s, my country had been at war with Iraq for years. Some of my first memories are of my family isolating themselves in dark underground tunnels to be safe from bombing raids on Tehran.

During the day I stayed with my grandmother in the tunnels while my parents went to work. I would hear from children who lost their families during the war and my fear of being abandoned has been there ever since.

There is an expression in Farsi, my mother tongue: “If you fear something, it will happen to you many times.”

Maryam is seen in the fall of 1987 as a child. During the Iran-Iraq War, she lived with her family in Tehran. (Submitted by Maryam Azimzadehriani)

The experiences that led me to Canada in 2017 confirmed that this sentence is true.

I wanted to leave Iran for new opportunities, jobs and adventures. But my main reason was to become independent in this world. I had some freedoms in my native country, but my choices were limited in Iran’s patriarchal society.

I was known as a good scientist and researcher who worked hard and made valuable contributions. But my academic supervisor favored men over independent and determined women. The man I wanted to marry asked me to forget about immigration and stay dependent on him when he started his career without taking my dreams seriously.

I have attempted to overcome these limitations by focusing on making an impact in my society, unhindered by gender bias. I’ve tried to achieve this goal alongside my academic career through freelance journalism and working to give others a voice.

But journalism was not a great honor in Iran, even with well-known media. Freedom of expression is restricted. And as a journalist, discrimination and harassment are commonplace. So I decided to leave home to find what I was looking for.

Maryam Azimzadehriani worked at a science publication in Iran before immigrating to Canada. (Submitted by Maryam Azimzadehriani)

I wanted independence, but my fear of being alone was still there. On the way to Montreal, I felt like a tiny silkworm beginning to escape from its dark cocoon – the price of its transformation into a moth.

I hoped to overcome my worst fears, which the Farsi quote predicted would be repeated.

Within a year of moving to Canada, my partner left me, I was suspended from my academic position in Iran, and I lost my mother to cancer.

I faced the usual immigrant challenges: language barriers, culture shock, and integration struggles that isolated me from my new society. However, by Spring 2020, I had been working hard to learn French and English, made good friends, and was trying to overcome my loss and isolation by participating in various Iranian-Canadian community activities.

But as Canada entered the global fight against COVID-19, I once again felt the resurgence of my fear of being alone. Isolating myself without my friends or a close relationship felt like a nightmare.

During the long days of captivity, I discovered that although I sought an independent world, I had become dependent on my social and professional interactions. I realized that I hadn’t recognized my fears – instead, I was just trying to escape them.

About two months before the lockdown in winter 2020, I had applied for a short diploma in journalism at Concordia University. I accepted the offer of admission but did not register for my courses, perhaps out of concern for my language skills.

I realized that now was the time to pursue my journalistic dreams further.

Maryam (centre) reports on a union demonstration in Montreal last fall. (Submitted by Maryam Azimzadehriani)

Everything has changed for me. I started producing news podcasts, TV reports, and class articles. I have met many wonderful journalists who have influenced a society that is afraid of human contact. We have written short reports and documentaries about people trying to face their fears. I published my first serious English article about what annoyed me about journalism in Iran: the restrictions placed on female journalists.

Practicing journalism in Canada has exposed me to the disappointments, hopes and challenges of so many others, which has helped me learn more about who I am. As the great Persian poet Rumi once said, “Don’t feel lonely, the whole universe is within you.”

I now know that wherever I am I can find ways to fight loneliness.

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