All this Burnaby refugee wanted was an education. He got that and more

All Aboozar Ahmadi wanted was a university education.

It took a journey from Iran, through Azerbaijan, and all the way to Canada to get one.

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The Burnaby resident recently graduated from UBC with a Master’s in Public Policy and Global Affairs.

“I’m excited about the whole thing because growing up in Iran after my high school, it was my dream to go to university,” he said. “But then for 10 years I didn’t really have the opportunity until I came to Canada.”

Ahmadi was born in Iran in 1984, one of seven boys born to Afghan refugees. Since his parents were from Afghanistan, he was also an Afghan citizen.

“But I’ve never been to Afghanistan,” he said.

This caused him some confusion in Grade 1.

“In Iran, when you’re a kid you don’t really understand the dynamics and your status in that country,” he said. “The first time they asked about my nationality was Grade 1. The school principal asked if I was Iranian or an Afghan, and I didn’t really know what the difference was.”

But as the years went on, the differences between the refugees and Iranian children were made clear.

“Growing up you could basically understand that despite the fact that you were born in that country and it was the only place that you knew, you’d have to leave that country one day,” Ahmadi said. “The metaphor that they would use when talking about the Afghan refugees – there’s a big Afghan refugee community in Iran – the metaphor was the guest, and as a guest you’d have to leave at some point, right?”

It also affected what rights the family had. They couldn’t have a bank account. It was almost impossible to get a driver’s licence. And the kids needed a permit to go to school.

“I remember one year it took them a bit longer, I was in Grade 4 at the time, they issued the permit a month later and I was very sad because I had friends going to school and I could not go, so I was just wondering why?” he said.

When Ahmadi was in his last year of high school, his mother died of leukemia. The family had to cover all the health costs themselves – there was no government coverage for refugees.

This debt, as well as the restrictions that limit refugees from attending university, meant that Ahmadi had to get a job in construction after high school.

The family left Iran five years later, going to Azerbaijan for four years, until 2012. In July of that year, Ahmadi’s father’s cousin sponsored the family to come to Canada.

They arrived first in Winnipeg but ended up coming to the West Coast and living in Burnaby.

He says the oft-used comparison of winning the lottery is true for him – that’s exactly what coming to Canada felt like.

“I remember the first day I arrived in Vancouver, the day after I went to Vancouver Community College to inquire about their registration requirements and took an English assessment test,” he said.

He returned to Iran to marry his wife in 2013 and then came back to study International Relations at Douglas College. He transferred to the University of British Columbia and got his Bachelor’s in 2017. 

“My intellectual journey kind of began after high school when I couldn’t go to university,” he said, adding he became an avid reader and studied philosophy.

He decided to go into International Relations for a number of reasons.

“At the time I was trying to understand the international environment, like politics and the international systems,” he said. “And at the same time it would help me understand my own life.”

After graduation, Ahmadi leaves for China as part of the Seeds of the Future work-study program. He hopes to work for the federal government and plans to move to Ottawa at the end of the summer.

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