One summer, I temporarily rented an apartment where two young women next door welcomed me.
“Hi, I am *Sarah. This is my daughter, *May”, they gently opened their door while I noisily dragged myself in, glasses smudged, hands grimy, dying of thirst.
Accepting tea from Sarah began my discovery of an extraordinary young woman’s experience of war, emigration, polygamy, single parenthood, and work injuries – all before studying psychology for a career in special education.
Over countless pots of tea in her apartment or mine, Sarah talked about her ordinary upbringing in Tehran until irreversible changes one day in 1984. Her fifteen-year-old brother, Amin disappeared, like many boys who also vanished from comfortable, protective homes, and likely rounded up as the Ayatollah’s child soldiers.
“My parents looked everywhere, but no one recognized Amin’s picture, and everything got worse”, Sarah lamented the Gulf War.
“I quit school when universities were not safe”, Sarah recalled sadly. “But what else could a teenage girl do?”
With a remote connection in Canada, Sarah’s distraught parents spoke solemnly one day about refuge for their daughter.
“My mother held my face in both hands. She cried. She said they wouldn’t make me go, but I would be safer in Toronto by marrying an older man”, Sarah remembered her difficult choices.
“It ripped me apart to tell my parents I would go. I thought, if I was okay in Canada, I could help them, or maybe keep Amin safe if they ever found him”, Sarah closed her eyes, just as she had closed a chapter on her youth back in Tehran.
Within weeks, eighteen-year-old Sarah arrived in Toronto with documents to marry forty-year-old **Yousef, an office custodian originally from Tehran some years earlier.
“Yousef wasn’t ugly, or old, or rough, but I was just a girl with no one here. He tried to be nice, and I learned very fast what marriage was about. Before I knew it, I was expecting May”, Sarah summarized enormous milestones in her young life.
“May was just a baby when Yousef wanted to try for a boy. But I was always tired and we were fighting over little things like grocery bills. Then he was away a lot with another job in Oshawa,” Sarah stared at me to forewarn what came next.
“One day, Yousef moved a woman called **Niki into our place. She was a few years older than I, but very rude. She had a little boy with her. She screamed she would kill me for taking her husband. But Yousef said if we wanted peace, everyone had to get along because Niki was also his wife”, Sarah saw my distress from the harrowing details.
“Niki was Yousef’s wife back home. But they used false papers to come to Canada. Niki didn’t know Yousef married me using Canadian papers. So suddenly my husband had another wife and another child,” Sarah winced as I reeled in disbelief.
“I was really upset but I stayed calm, for May”, Sarah’s frown gave way to the determination that I often saw in her.
“I wrapped May up and we went to the police station for help. I would not live with another wife”, Sarah said firmly.
“The police Farsi worker took us to a women’s shelter. We stayed there for quite a few weeks, and then we got an apartment for low-income parents. I took May with me to English classes, and then I looked for work”, Sarah’s grimace began to relax.
“I told this nursing home I was a good worker, I would do anything, and I really needed a job”, Sarah smiled at her first negotiation for paid work in Canada.
“The job was hard but I didn’t mind. We had money for rent and food, and daycare”, Sarah was proud of her economic independence. In fact, she worked for two years at the same nursing home until an accident changed her life once more.
“One morning, I helped this woman get out of bed. I was putting shoes on her, but she fell back and grabbed my hijab for support. I twisted my neck, and then I had these sharp pains all over. A few days later, the doctor said to take a break because I had serious back injuries ”, Sarah sighed at the unfortunate incident.
“I left my job and got workers’ compensation. With less money, May was still in daycare, but I needed to find a different job”, Sarah was clear about her priorities.
Sarah’s story would soon reveal a new Canadian’s resilience as she fought for success and raised a child on her own.
To be continued ...
* Sarah and May simply want to be known by their first names.
** Names known to Sarah from personal documents.
About Mina Wong: A teacher of social sciences and adult education, Mina enjoys celebrating the lives and success of learners using their own stories.