Fearless advocate

Once a refugee herself, Haidah Amirzadeh (BFA’99, JD’04) now lends her expertise as an immigration lawyer to help others

Haidah Amirzadeh (photos by David Stobbe)

WHEN HAIDAH AMIRZADEH first stepped onto the tarmac at Saskatoon’s airport, she thought every car and truck in the city had engine problems.

It was November, and clouds of exhaust poured from every tailpipe. She had never seen that in her home country of Iran.

That was Amirzadeh’s first taste of winter when she arrived in Saskatoon as a refugee, back in 1989.

Now a lawyer specializing in immigration and refugee cases, Amirzadeh doesn’t just try to put herself in her clients’ shoes. She has been there.

“It was tough,” she says of her experience.

Amirzadeh was just 13 years old when the Islamic Revolution swept through Iran. She remembers her family, once accustomed to open discussion across a spectrum of views, being blacklisted.

She remembers also the war with Iraq that soon followed the revolution, and the frequent bombing near her home in Shiraz—a city known for its wine, poetry and flowers.

And she recalls the closure of all the universities in the revolution’s early days, and the high unemployment rate.

By 1987, Amirzadeh was a 22-year-old woman fleeing the country with her then-husband. They told no one they were leaving, not even their families. Upon their arrival in Turkey, they claimed refugee status and for the next 18 months lived under constant fear of deportation.

The couple spent their first month in a city near the border, where they were fingerprinted and required to report to police daily. After clearing security, they were taken to a small town near Ankara, where they reported to police monthly. They were not allowed to leave the town without permission. Amirzadeh estimates there were a total of 50 to 60 refugees in that community, waiting to be selected to go to different countries.

She and her husband both worked, he at a seafood company, she in what she calls a “sweat shop” doing basic sewing. They had no work permits, although Amirzadeh notes that under international law they officially should have been allowed to work.

“It was pretty lonely, too,” she says.

This was the era before cell phones, and the couple would go to the post office to wait hours for phone calls from family.

Initially, Amirzadeh and her husband were interviewed by the United Nations Refugee Agency, which accepted their claim as refugees. It then circulated their application to countries that are signatories to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. They were called for an interview at the Canadian embassy, passed and were accepted for resettlement in Canada.

“So we really didn’t choose Canada, Canada chose us,” she says.

Sent to Saskatoon, they arrived on her 24th birthday. By then, she was seven months pregnant—and totally unprepared for the cold climate.

She arrived on that -25 C November day wearing a hot pink dress and light jacket, and knowing no English.

The following year, her husband began his studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Amirzadeh was not content to remain a housewife. She also wanted an education: a key issue that led to their separation, she says.

Amirzadeh took her first university course in the summer of 1991. She concentrated on drama in the first three years of her studies, followed by visual arts in her final year.

But a BFA did not lead to an arts career. She found the field hard to break into. And, as a single mother with a student loan, her immediate goal was to earn enough to support herself and her son.

The turning point came when, through her volunteer work with the Saskatoon Open Door Society, she translated for a refugee in court. A political prisoner for four years in Iran, he was suffering from PTSD after being awakened every night and told he would be executed. Amirzadeh told the man’s lawyer, who presented this information in court.

“I was just so inspired that, yeah, you could do something,” Amirzadeh says. “And he was really happy that someone spoke his language and also understood what he went through in Iran. As far as I know, he is doing well and is living in Vancouver now.”

She applied to the College of Law and was accepted. She says she has no regrets despite the challenges.

“It’s not easy work, for sure.”

However, she credits her fine arts education for her ability to draw on her creative side—to “think outside the box” in her legal work. And she sees a parallel between her dramatic training and presenting her arguments in court.

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Amirzadeh with her husband, artist Grant McConnell, in his studio at their home in Saskatoon.

Amirzadeh’s connection to Saskatoon’s arts community also led to her second marriage to Grant McConnell (BFA’83, MFA’94), who teaches art history along with painting and drawing at the College of Arts & Science. His bronze sculpture Duke is displayed in front of Griffiths Stadium, and his paintings are represented in the University Art Collection.

Their two daughters (Afsohneh, 16 and Niiki, 14) are active debaters. Her mother describes Niiki as a “social justice advocate.”

“Advocate” is a word Amirzadeh also applies to herself in her legal practice.

While she began her career in criminal law, she discovered “way more passion” for immigration and refugee law.

Her biggest challenge now, she says, is to separate herself from her clients. She wants to help everyone, and digs hard to find qualifications that will enable them to stay in Canada.

Among her recent successes is the high-profile case of the Afridis, a couple who won their five-year struggle to adopt their nephew from Pakistan and bring him to Saskatoon.

Amirzadeh has also seen heartbreaking cases, such as a man who set himself on fire in front of the UN Refugee Agency.

“He was so desperate, he was feeling that the whole world was ignoring them.”

There was also the family smuggled into Turkey on horseback. One of the smugglers took off with their 14-year-old daughter for a few hours.

“Even now I keep having this lump in my throat, and you knew what possibly happened,” Amirzadeh says.

At times, when her work leaves her overwhelmed by emotion, she reminds herself that she does not have a magic wand, that not every case will end the way her client hopes.

Despite the pressures of her law practice, Amirzadeh does pro bono legal work for clients who can’t afford to pay for a lawyer. She also remains actively involved with the Saskatoon Open Door Society, where she started as a client before becoming a volunteer and eventually co-chair of the board.

It is a fateful time to be in Amirzadeh’s line of work, when mass migration has become an epic challenge in hot spots around the globe. “And it’s not going to get better,” she says, commenting that Syrian refugees won’t go back to their home country because they have nothing to go back to.

Amirzadeh, who also teaches immigration and refugee law at the U of S, argues for a balance between recruiting the world’s best and brightest, and letting people into Canada on compassionate and humanitarian grounds.

Some of the toughest cases she can recall involve immigrants deemed inadmissible because of a family member’s medical condition. In those instances, the family must demonstrate that it will bear the cost of care and treatment.

In one such case, a girl with cerebral palsy was the same age as her son. The father had left because of the girl’s condition.

She remembers the day the family was allowed to stay. “I sat in my office and I sobbed, but it was more out of happiness, and kind of like, why did they have to go through all of these challenges?”

Now, with waves of migrants arriving on Mediterranean shores, Amirzadeh says North America needs to “lift the weight off the shoulders of Europe.” The United States in particular must take its share of refugees, given its hand in creating the situation where people are fleeing their countries.

“There has to be some accountability and some responsibility,” she says.

Canada, as well, has obligations as a signatory to the UN convention on refugees, she notes.

But she also maintains that, due to geography, Canada will not face a wave of migrants on the same scale as Europe, adding that the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States is designed to prevent “country-shopping.”

She also notes a change in the attitude of the federal government, describing the situation two years ago as “dark times” in her practice.

Now “you feel that you’re not hitting a wall” because the government seems more understanding and welcoming, she says. They are more open to eager arrivals from developing countries.

“This is the time I could say I’m very proud of my government.”

She is also gratified to see the pilot project in Saskatchewan that will enable temporary foreign workers to eventually obtain permanent resident status.

She maintains that Canada needs immigration to make up for its aging population and low birth rate, but it must be balanced with job training for Indigenous people.

At the same time, Amirzadeh says the community needs to be prepared for the arrivals yet to come, so that Canada remains a welcoming place.

The community needs a role in decision-making, she says. “It can’t be imposed.”