Political science grad Sara Rahimi grew up in a family that believed in debate and freedom of expression, even when it came at a cost (photo by Ken Jones)

Convocation 2015: from political refugee to political science degree

After fleeing Iran in 2001, alumna and her family settled in Canada ten years ago

When Sara Rahimi took to the steps of Convocation Hall to receive her degree in political science, it fulfilled a very important wish of her late father.

“He was a political cartoonist,” she says. “Even though he was forced to flee his country for what he drew, he never gave up on his passion.”

Rahimi grew up in a political household. Her family always talked about politics and her father, Said Rahimi, always encouraged debate. Her father’s cousin, an investigative journalist, covered politically sensitive stories that the mainstream media in Iran didn’t touch – including bloody tribal conflicts.

Rahimi distinctively remembers sneaking into a private meeting between her father and his cousin one time, while they were reviewing footage of a man being tortured to death in a rural area of Iran.

“I was only 13 but I remember that footage to this day,” she says. “This was before the Internet and social media made these stories more accessible. It also wasn’t safe to be an investigative journalist, especially in Iran, so they often had to keep the stories they were working on private.”

Her father’s publication was known for tackling political issues in Iran that others simply wouldn’t touch. It soon began to attract attention overseas, especially in Germany, which in turn attracted negative attention from the Iranian government.

“My father was approached by government officials and warned to stop publishing or else. So he decided it was time to leave.”

Leaving under the cover of darkness

Using contacts in Azerbaijan and with the help of a smuggler, Rahimi’s family took a bus from their hometown of Qom to the border, where they had to walk the rest of the way. 

“We couldn’t officially cross the border because it would have alerted the Iranian government. I remember it was a 20-hour walk, most of it in the dark, across some fast running rivers. Once we got across the border we had to connect with my father’s contacts and hide.”

After a meeting with the United Nations office in Azerbijan about being relocated as refugees, they found out there were several countries in the West willing to sponsor the family. This was 2001, right before the 9/11 attacks. The Rahimi family would remain in Azerbaijan until 2005 before a spot finally opened up in Canada. They settled in Hamilton, Ontario.

A new life

Adapting to a new life in Canada was not easy for Said Rahimi. In Iran he was responsible for illustrating important political issues but in Canada it was a struggle to find meaningful employment. He persisted and eventually began to find his way, enrolling in Mohawk College’s police foundations program while taking English classes at night. 

But, in 2007, Said died in a car accident while at work as a delivery driver. It was a difficult time especially for Sara, who had to step in and fill many of the roles her father had played for the family.

Before he died, Said Rahimi had started re-drawing his old political cartoons while crafting new ones in preparation for a public exhibition. Many of his most poignant cartoons touched on the themes of conflict, the effects of war, the meddling of the West on politics in the Middle East as well as human rights.

More than a year after his death the exhibition was held in his honour, attended by some of Canada’s best known political cartoonists, including Brian Gable, Graeme MacKay, Roy Carless and the legendary Terry Mosher.

“My father was definitely a big influence on my life. He firmly believed in free speech and wasn’t willing to compromise on that even when he was threatened,” she says.

Politics runs in the family

Rahimi was attracted to political science at U of T mainly because of her background but also the many disciplines that connect with politics, namely psychology, philosophy, economics and sociology.

“Sara was a diligent student who actively participated in class discussions, was genuinely engaged in her studies and never shied away from a challenge,” says Renan Levine, who taught Rahimi several political science courses at UTSC.

“Her memorable life story informed her research, in particular a paper investigating whether young immigrants to Canada from non-democratic countries are more cynical about government and less trusting of government compared to their non-immigrant peers.”

In addition to her family, Rahimi says she is thankful for the extra help and guidance she received from her high school teachers, Carol Town, Jeff Pattinson and especially, Ian McSkimming, her high school English teacher at Sir John A. MacDonald in Hamilton.

“I was 18 when I came to Canada and started high school. Without his help and guidance I’m not sure where I would be.” 

As for the future, Rahimi will soon help her mother open a new restaurant in Burlington while also working as a paralegal in the GTA. She hopes to attend law school one day but, in the meantime, she's celebrating convocation and being the first in her family to graduate from university.

It’s something she knows would make her father proud. 

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