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The human heart: The invisible baggage of migration

Shiva Nourpanah final use this one JPGS.

Christmas 2019, Grandfather and granddaughter reunited in Halifax, Canada. Courtesy of the author.

The impact of the plane crash in Tehran on 8 January 2020 on our small family circle in Halifax, Canada, was immediate. My father, an 84-year old widower, had travelled to Halifax from Tehran and was staying with us at the time. His return flight to Tehran was booked for 10 January. As the news of the crash reverberated across the globe and through our family, already spread out over continents, the panicked mode which had become our ‘new normal’ since the assassination of the Iranian general and the looming threat of World War Three suddenly took a sharp, personal twist. FaceTime and WhatsApp calls reached a new feverish pitch as concerned family members tried to persuade my father, fruitlessly, to delay his return to Tehran. The lovely family Christmas we had been enjoying up to then, where the most pressing concern was recreating fesenjoon in a small Canadian city which does not have a well-stocked Persian goods store selling pomegranate paste, suddenly turned into a wide-awake nightmare. 

As migrants, we tacitly accept that being absent for our parents’ sickness and death is part of the high price we pay for moving away from our homeland. We know the calls will come – I received one in 2016, to be told of my mother’s unexpected death. But I was not quite prepared for the high emotional toll. In the first week of 2020, as headline after headline blared awful things happening to Iranians, I had flashbacks to the days following my mother’s death – that curious sensation of being split in two, the physical body moving through my days here in Halifax and my spirit in Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in Tehran, watching my mother’s burial. Now, as I kissed my father goodbye in Halifax airport and watched him limp through the security gates, I split again, except the spirit had nowhere to go. My son hugged me and told me not to cry. 

The emotional toll of migration is not as visible as its more celebrated aspects. In receiving countries such as Canada, diversity is often lauded as contributing to economic growth and to social and cultural fertility. Diversity is a visible mark of progressiveness, liberalism and tolerance. In sending countries, immigration to a western country is seen as a marker of success and achievement, as the ‘natural’ next step for a middle-class family like buying a house or a car. The nostalgia, the pain of moving away, the bewilderment and alienation are concealed under the excitement and bustle of moving, socially and geographically. Cultural shocks become cute party anecdotes: ‘The examiner asked me to explain my thesis ‘in a nutshell’, and I was so confused, I said, ‘I’m sorry, what do nuts have to do with my thesis?’’. 

When I was preparing my immigration application from Iran to Canada, I seldom paused to ask ‘Why is this necessary? Why do I have to do this?’ It was just what all my peers were doing. Even though I knew with my head that it meant that I would be a long, long, long way from my parents, from the place I had called home, I did not fully, intentionally and consciously embrace and acknowledge that reality. Migration to Canada was synonymous with freedom from a misogynistic, theocratic, repressive regime. Not seeing my parents every week was a small price to pay for that. We travelled over summers instead, spending the equivalent of a down-payment on a house on building memories half-way across the world. 


I do not regret the move. I do not regret living and raising my children in a country where women’s rights are slightly more respected and recognised by the government than that of my home country. Even slightly is a large improvement on what I had had and experienced, what my daughter would have had experienced in Iran. But as I have grown older, I feel the cost has increased, the emotional burden of being a migrant has become heavier. This is what I was not prepared for. I was not prepared for the pain to grow deeper and more complicated. For the feelings of nostalgia and sorrow not to dissipate, but instead become sharper with the passage of time. For transnational divorce, transnational death, transnational heartbreak. These were things the migration scholars and policy-makers had not talked about. The government migration website told me how to prepare for a job interview in Canada and how to count up my migration ‘points’, they didn’t tell me how to get a divorce or arrange for custody when my transnational marriage broke down. The migration scholars I read told me how celebrating cultural traditions builds a sense of identity, they didn’t tell me how to mourn my mother. Nobody told me my heart would split, I would be in two places at the same time. Nobody told me that seeing the word ‘Iran’ in news headlines, again and again, would trigger this instant reaction of horror and dread and it would not stop. It might pause, maybe even for a few years but then it would happen again. I migrated to build a calm, orderly, fair, equitable home for myself and my children; I didn’t realise that chaos, terror and darkness is also transnational, and will follow me into that bright beautiful home. 

The human heart is a curious tough old creature. The bonds of affection and love extend through time and space, across oceans and continents. They do not grow weaker. Time does not heal, as my mother was fond of saying when remembering the untimely death of her own father the year before I was born. We build new connections, new friendships and loves, but the old ones do not disappear. They sit there, sometimes comfortably and other times not so much, tugging and pulling at us. Migration is not an escape. And that is the hardest lesson of all.

Shiva Nourpanah.jpg
Shiva Nourpanah

Shiva Nourpanah is Provincial Coordinator of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, and a SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence, University of Guelph. She is also Adjunct Faculty at the Department of International Development Studies, Saint Mary's University and School of Occupational Therapy, Dalhousie University. Her areas of research include refugee and immigration affairs and gender-based violence. Formerly, she worked for eight years for the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees office in Iran. She has published work on the ethics of refugee aid, women's human rights in refugee aid, and the experiences of settlement and integration of Afghan refugees in Halifax. Currently, she is researching the role of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in refugee claims, and the experiences of foreign women in Transition Houses.  

She has been a member of the Board of Directors of the Halifax Refugee Clinic since 2011.

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