The Lives of Toronto's Iranian Exiles
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The Lives of Toronto’s Iranian Exiles

Debut book by journalist Laura Secor explores the tumult faced by exiled Iranians, including those in our city.

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“What I learned in prison is that there is no such thing as an absolute truth and that any political regime which tries to establish and educate absolute truth will find itself confronted with absolute error.”
– Ramin Jahanbegloo, Iranian philosopher and Toronto resident.

Call it Tehranto: the city has long been home to a growing diaspora from Iran. Toronto has embraced this community; a 2006 Canadian census found nearly 50,000 Iranians have settled here.

For many, the city is a safe haven. It’s thanks to this security that some Iranian immigrants and refugees are able to fight for change—not just in Toronto, but in their home country thousands of kilometres away.

These are the fighters who lead in journalist Laura Secor’s debut book, Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, launching in the city today with a talk for the University of Toronto’s lecture series.

Secor’s book details the historical and political life of the Islamic Republic of Iran, documenting the country’s civil and political history through the lives of its citizens.

Among these citizens is Shahram Rafizadeh. The poet and journalist left Iran in 2005 for Toronto. Secor retells in great detail the brutal torture that Rafizadeh endured while imprisoned in Iran. Sadly, he’s not alone: all of Secor’s characters endure torture, imprisonment, and self-imposed exile.

Despite his exile, Rafizadeh has continued his work as a journalist and activist, and he remains hopeful about Iran’s future.

“There hasn’t been a day that I left my job. For ten years now, every single day, I write and speak about the Iranian press,” Rafizadeh says. “The women and the young people of Iran are trying their hardest to change everything—and they will.”

Rafizadeh is just one of many characters who feature in Children of Paradise. This is intentional narrative style: Secor rapidly introduces characters and moves from one to the next in staccato fashion, reflecting the innumerable count of people that have been affected by the tyrannical tendencies of the regime.

It took Secor eight years to write the book, for which she interviewed 150 people. But that’s not out of the norm for the American journalist, who has written about Iran for The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Foreign Affairs, and The New Republic.

Still, Secor faced many challenges while writing. For one, she had to work against stereotypes of Iran as a monolithic country.

“A lot of people see Iran as being impenetrable and as a foreign policy problem and almost all of what we read is put in that frame,” she says. “I wanted to step inside and show the vibrancy of a people and a civic culture and dynamism that I don’t see anywhere else.”

For another, Secor was writing about the sheer brutality of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s state apparatus. Stonings, torture, imprisonment, and countless executions are all depicted in the book in great detail.

Secor’s interest in Iran and Iranian politics began in 1979, when Iranian students took the American embassy and its personnel hostage for 444 days. That incident was a defining moment not only for Secor, but for an entire generation in both America and in Iran.

“We are children of an ugly divorce,” says Secor, referring to the severed diplomatic relations of the Iran and America.

Despite that ugly divorce, Secor is determined to provide a sense of intimacy with a place that for many North American readers seems faraway and exotic.

And for some Iranian Torontonians, it is no longer accessible. Secor last visited Iran in February 2012 and is currently finding it difficult to get a visa to go back but the subjects of her book, including those in Toronto, cannot go back. Instead, they continue their lives in exile, working from safety, their tumultuous pasts forever bound in Secor’s book.

Laura Secor talks Children of Paradise as part of the University of Toronto lecture series at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on February 3 at 12:30 p.m.