Zhila Kashaninia couldn’t help but fear the worst when all the schools in her city were shut down.
Hundreds of people were regularly spilling onto the streets of Tehran for violent demonstrations against the ruling Shah, often resulting in deaths and imprisonment. Restrictions were placed on when citizens were allowed to go outside and they couldn’t be seen with more than two people. By August of 1978, strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country as it headed towards a revolution.
When Kashaninia was brave enough to venture outside, she’d see blood on the street.
“It was a very uneasy time. It was difficult to go through something like that,” said Kashaninia, who was 15 at the time. “Nobody knew what was going to happen and things were going from bad to worse.”
Seeing no future in Iran, Kashaninia’s parents made the difficult decision to send her and her 24-year-old sister to live with their uncle in Canada on a student visa.
Kashaninia had some time to prepare for the departure from the only country she’s ever called home, but was filled with immense sadness when the day finally arrived to go to the airport packed with people desperately trying to flee the country. She didn’t know when or if she’d see her parents again.
“There was no choice. This new journey to Canada was going to become my life,” said Kashaninia, who flew to Toronto, where she went to high school, then university.
Not knowing the language made adjusting to her new life difficult. She talked sporadically on the phone with her parents, who provided updates on what was happening in Iran.
Things remained the same for the first six months after she left, but once the Islamic government took power, life in Iran went from bad to worse. Restrictions were put on women to cover themselves in public and those who were against the new government were killed.
“Everybody in my family was happy we were out,” said Kashaninia, noting her parents eventually fled to the United States, where her brother was a citizen.
“It’s very sad because I do love my country and I love the people and hopefully one day they will see some peace. The people are really warm and beautiful and generous.”
After graduating from university with a degree in economics and communications, Kashaninia landed a government job in Victoria, where she also began studying music and grew a fondness for singing.
A few years ago, she found a group from the James Bay United Church that had a dream of sponsoring a refugee. Kashaninia was keen to help out, so she became involved in their fundraising efforts.
Eventually the group formed into the James Bay Refugee Initiative, which now includes more than 100 people who’ve raised more than $25,000 to sponsor refugees to come to Victoria. One of the biggest challenges thus far, however, has been getting a refugee here.
Two young men who were supposed to come over fell through on two separate occasions, leaving the group feeling frustrated. Now, they’re hoping a 25-year-old woman from Syria will arrive soon since she’s passed security, criminal and medical screening, and is just waiting for an exit visa from the country she’s currently staying.
“It’s been a real joy, but it hasn’t been without its frustrations and challenges. You get your hopes up and you really look forward to it because you want to help better somebody’s life. You don’t realize how easy we have it in Canada until you hear of the refugee crisis,” said James Bay Refugee Initiative spokesperson Grant Kerr, noting the community is ready to roll out the welcome mat with a furnished apartment for the woman when she arrives.
In the meantime, the group will continue its fundraising efforts with An Evening of Spanish Songs and Music. The concert will feature Kashaninia, a mezzo soprano, with Robert Holliston on piano and Gwen Thompson on violin.
For Kashaninia, organizing the concert is for a cause close to her heart.
“I’m just so grateful to the Canadians in every corner of the country. They are coming together to help these newcomers,” said Kashaninia, who’s performed in Spain and Mexico. “My journey has been difficult, but nothing compared to what they’ve (refugees) gone through — living in tents and leaving the countries with the clothes on their back. I’m just in awe and if we can, in our own little city, just create some hope and a future for someone, it’s a really beautiful thing.”
The concert takes place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 25 at the Oak Bay United Church. Tickets are $20 and available from Long and McQuade or at the door. All proceeds go to the James Bay Refugee Initiative.