Three generations of a family with Iranian roots.
Three different experiences of Lindsay. If you don’t already know them, meet the Yazdanis.
Helen and Khosrow
Let’s start in the middle, with Helen and Khosrow, who are in their late 50s and have been in Lindsay for over 30 years. I talked with them over tea and cinnamon-scented Noon Youkhe pastries in their home.
Both were born and grew up in Iran, Helen in Shiraz and Khosrow in Tehran. His parents wove carpets, much like the intricately patterned ones that decorate their home now. Her father held a number of jobs; her mother was a nurse.
To a large degree all of their lives have been shaped by their religion: Baha’i, an independent world religion that itself has roots in Iran (when it was still Persia).
Despite Baha’i’s Persian roots and deeply humanistic and inclusive tenets (belief in the oneness of humanity, oneness of God and fundamental oneness of religions), followers have been a persecuted minority in Iran.
One of Helen’s aunts was martyred, hanged for being Baha’i. Other relatives were expelled from school.
One of Khosrow’s relatives lost his job; another was barred from attending university. At one time 350 homes of Baha’i believers in Shiraz were burned and families would go to bed fully dressed, ready to flee.
The persecution happened under the Shah and then again after the revolution and rise to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Both Helen (at 18) and Khosrow (at 21) left for India to escape conditions in Iran and to continue their educations. Not easy times. Helen’s parents weren’t allowed to send money out of the country and the Iranian embassy wouldn’t renew her passport, so in India she and her sister applied to the UN High Commission for refugee status.
The rupees provided to her as a refugee allowed her to complete a Master’s degree. Khosrow, who was studying physiotherapy in Delhi, also applied for refugee status. His parents sent him pistachios to sell to supplement the refugee allowance.
Khosrow and Helen met in 1980 and were married in 1984. A Muslim friend of Khosrow had been in Canada and had nice things to say about the experience, so Khosrow arranged a visa.
They came to Canada through a collaborative immigration program involving that era’s Trudeau government, UNHCR, and the Canadian and Indian Baha’i National Assemblies. One of the conditions was that they become “pioneers,” and help build a fledgling Baha’i assembly here in Lindsay.
Helen remembers the arrival vividly. It was a chilly Easter weekend and they had come directly from Delhi and Bombay. A local Immigration and Unemployment office official, Don Blanchard, made their first stop White’s of Lindsay department store, to be outfitted in warm gear.
The early challenges were finding a home (their first weeks were at the 9/10 Motel, in a small room with no kitchen) and finding work. Khosrow held a series of part-time cleaning jobs–sometimes three at a time.
He then became a physio assistant at the hospital, part-time at first. He passed a qualifying exam, became full time at Ross and in 1995 took up a position with Community Care in Peterborough (now part of the Central East LHIN). He’s still there, 23 years later.
While they started a family, Helen held a number of jobs: seamstress at Lindsay Cleaners, housekeeping at the hospital, then ward clerk. She went back to school to study addiction counselling and social services and since 2005 has been an addiction counsellor at the Central East Correctional Centre.
Ever since their arrival, the couple have been contributing to our community.
“For Baha’is,” Helen tells me, “service is a form of worship.”
Hands up those among us who have welcomed a refugee family into our homes? My hand isn’t up and I’m guessing yours isn’t either.
For six months in 2016 Khosrow and Helen took in the Alzhubis, a Syrian family of six that had been sponsored by Cambridge St. United Church. The Yazdanis provided their basement–a self-contained living space with kitchen and its own entrance.
During that time they often looked after transportation, gave support for some medical problems, took the family to Sarnia to see relatives, and helped in arranging some house-painting jobs for the father, Hasan. Khosrow also approached the Rec Centre for donation of a one-year membership for the family. (I remember seeing the youngest Alzhubi, Mohammed, clambering onto the ice, a big grin on his face).
That was only one of their contributions to our community. A few years after their arrival, Helen fielded a call from Don Blanchard (the official who’d first welcomed them to Lindsay). There was talk of forming a committee to assist the homeless and he thought that as refugees themselves they might want to be involved.
The talk led to A Place Called Home and Helen became a founding member of the Board. She remained on the Board for 25 years.
Later they sponsored a nephew of Khosrow’s, Kamyar, who lived with them for a few years while he attended LCVI. (He’s now married, with kids, and working in Whitby).
They’ve also been involved in Spiritual Care at Ross Memorial, Pause for Peace (a September event involving a number of churches), the Big Sister program . . . You get the idea.
As they approach retirement, we can be pretty sure their community service will continue.
Ali and Zarri (Helen’s Parents)
In 2009 Helen and Khosrow brought over her parents. They were aging, and her father had twice been struck by cars, both his legs broken both times. For the first year they lived with the Yazdanis, but since then have had their own apartment.
Ali and Zarri speak almost no English and because of this and their physical limitations it’s been impossible for them to engage with their new community as much as they might want to.
They attend the monthly Bahai gatherings that are often held in the Yazdani’s living room, but the talk is in English and though Helen translates to give them the gist, it’s frustrating, particularly for Ali, a former Baha’i pioneer who loves to exchange ideas.
Most of their time is spent in their apartment. Her father reads Persian books and they watch Iranian TV and listen to the BBC Persian radio stream. If the Yazdanis or their three sons are in the GTA they will pick up flatbreads and other Persian foods for Ali and Zarri from a spot in Pickering or a strip of Iranian businesses on Yonge St., stretching from Finch to north of Steeles.
Arash (Helen and Khosrow’s son)
Like his two younger brothers, Arash — now 30 — was born and raised here in Lindsay. Growing up he had no sense of being different from his friends until, just after he’d started grade 9 at Weldon, the 9/11 attacks occurred.
Visibly Middle Eastern, he was the target of semi-jocular teasing from some students (“How’s your Uncle Osama?”). Ironic, of course, given the Yazdanis’ own victimization by extremist Muslims, but hurtful.
It caused Arash to examine more closely–and take pride in–his religious and cultural roots.
All in all, though, the high school years were happy. He made good friends, got along with everyone, and played on a number of sports teams. (All of the Yazdani boys love sports, and Arash’s younger brother, Arman, is currently coaching a Wildcat basketball team).
When he moved on to University of Western Ontario to study Civil Engineering Arash was often surrounded by a diverse group of classmates.
He recalls one telling moment. After offering some help to Lebanese classmates, he was asked “Why are you hanging out with all the white guys?” His response was “Do you know Lindsay, Ontario?” He explained how growing up here his friends had always been white Anglo-Saxons.
On reflection, he feels fortunate to have been raised here rather than, say, Toronto.
“First, I wouldn’t have developed my English as well as I have, and second I’m kinda in the middle: I look slightly Middle Eastern and am accepted by Middle Eastern and other visible minority clients but I can relate to anybody.”
Although in his team leader position with Polar Racking in Toronto he’s often on the road (when we talked he’d just returned from Boston), he’s chosen to come home to Lindsay. Just a few months ago he married.
His wife, Lisa, a social worker, is 7th generation Irish Canadian, and they’ve known each other since elementary school at St. Dominic’s.
Very mainstream Lindsayite, eh? But in the way he’s been contributing to our community you can see the influence of his parents’ and grandparents’ Baha’i commitment to social engagement.
Two years ago, moved by reports of a racist incident, Arash was instrumental in organizing “Celebrating Diversity,” a potluck picnic at which Lindsayites from all backgrounds could get together and wash down Persian rice-dishes or Scottish kale salad with Jamaican ginger beer.
It’s become an annual event — this year’s will be held in Memorial Park on June 24.
Three generations, three experiences of Lindsay.