December 8, 2023

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Saskatoon woman celebrating 1st Christmas with daughter and granddaughter 18 years after family was separated

Warning: This story contains disturbing details.

An Iranian Canadian mother in Saskatoon has finally been reunited with her daughter and granddaughter in time for them to celebrate their first Christmas together after almost two decades apart.

CBC is not identifying the people involved to protect their extended family in Iran and because the daughter was allegedly the victim of sexual assault. The mother chose the pseudonym “Suraya” for herself and “Nahid” for her daughter.

For years, Canada’s immigration department turned down numerous requests to bring Nahid to Canada, but she finally made it to safety in Saskatoon on Nov. 23.

Suraya said her troubles began decades ago with her arranged marriage at the age of 16 to a man who was well-connected in the Iranian government.

She said the marriage soon turned abusive.

“When I delivered my third girl, my husband left me because I couldn’t have a boy, ” she said. “He left and got married to several other wives and didn’t support us financially.”

With help from friends, Suraya studied to become a hairstylist and started a beauty salon in her small apartment.

An elderly woman in a red sweater sits in her kithcen.
Suraya says it was always her wish to attend university, but she never could due to her religious household. She now wants that future for Nahid and her granddaughter. (Don Somers/CBC)

Things got worse when she converted to Christianity, which did not go over well in the “very religious Muslim” household.

“My husband put so many bans in my life,” Suraya said. “I couldn’t visit my friends. Nobody was allowed to visit me and I was just allowed to go to a nearby market or to pick my children up from school.”

Suraya said her husband kept collecting her hard-earned money from three part-time jobs until their divorce. Contrary to Islamic traditions, she was “not given any rights” and was told to bear the sole responsibility of her daughters.

“I thought I was free, but I learned my husband is planning to get my daughters into arranged marriages. I didn’t want the same life for them.”

Suraya ensured her two older daughters got accepted to France for their higher education. She then got Nahid to study in India in 2004. That was when the Suraya and Nahid were separated.

“My husband punished me. He broke my right hand and left leg,” Suraya said. “I remained in hiding and whoever helped me got in trouble too.”

She eventually fled Iran in 2006 and spent years traveling through Asia. Since Suraya could not pay for her daughter’s tuition in India, Nahid had to return to Iran.

‘I thought to die of suicide’

Nahid said she was abused, disciplined, harassed and “almost imprisoned” by her father as vengeance for her mother’s actions. 

She was sent to work as a receptionist at a business controlled by her father in the neighbouring country of Oman.

“For eight years that I was there, I had to sleep on chairs. I had to use my bath towel as a blanket or pillow,” Nahid said.

“He wasn’t providing me food. Whatever was left at the end of the day was mine. It wasn’t enough for an adult. He kept me hungry with just one meal per day.”

Suraya’s granddaughter had many health problems that stemmed from an infection she had when she was a baby. (CBC)

Nahid said she felt broken and weak all the time. She was woken up early and made to work long shifts.

She said the cameras, company drivers and security guards were always watching her, and any attempts to flee would have been futile. She was not allowed to have a bank account, and her identification papers including passport were taken away.

Meanwhile, in 2012 Suraya made it to Turkey, where she was recognized as a refugee and later sponsored to come to Saskatoon. 

“My life was difficult and so many times I thought to die of suicide. One day, I even took so many painkillers, but unfortunately I didn’t die.”

Nahid said one of her father’s employees, who was also working with the government, raped her.

“If I had told someone or even my father, who is a radical Muslim, I would have been killed.”

After becoming pregnant, Nahid felt it wasn’t safe to stay in the country and fled. Due to concerns about Nahid’s history with a company allegedly embezzling money for the Iranian government, she was not allowed to come to Canada.

Her daughter had many health problems stemming from an infection she had as a baby. Following a legal and bureaucratic journey spanning around five years, Nahid was accepted into Canada.

‘Darkness is behind us’

The now-five-year-old child was immediately hospitalized when they arrived in Toronto last week.

Now she is thriving in Saskatoon, eagerly waiting to start school for the first time and working on her Christmas list for Santa Claus.

“We still have a long way to go to overcome the trauma we witnessed. She still gets scared when strangers are around,” Nahid said.

“It’s the same for me. If somebody comes to the door or window, I get those images. I want peace for her and myself.”

Two women raise a girl who puts ornaments on a Christmas tree.
Suraya says her first Christmas celebration is made even more special by being reunited with her family. (Don Somers/CBC)

Nahid wants to resume her education and eventually start working to aid other women like herself.

“My wish was to attend university, and now I want that for Nahid and my granddaughter,” Suraya said.

“I think the darkness is behind us and now we can start chasing that ray of hope.”

Support is available for anyone who has suffered sexual assault or other forms of domestic abuse. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or thoughts of suicide, here’s where to get help: