People

Mohammad Nasser Jahani Asl

From torture to triumph, many miles from home

October 4, 2007

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Stuart Colcleugh

Mohammad Nasser Jahani Asl’s convocation this month with a master’s degree in education is the culmination of a life of hardship that is simply inconceivable to most of his fellow graduands. A life dominated by poverty, persecution, revolution, imprisonment and torture, a desperate escape to Canada from his homeland and a determined struggle to build a future in his newly adopted country.

Born the 12th of 13 children in 1960, in the city of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan, Jahani Asl’s family "was one of the poorest in the city," he recalls. His father "was old, jobless, and did not have one cent."

In school, Jahani Asl was forced to study in Persian rather than Kurdish, to wear Persian (European) and not Kurdish clothes, and to learn Shia religious ideas "instead of our traditional Sunni Islam."

At the University of Tabriz, he studied human and economic geography and read Marx, Lenin and other communist thinkers as well as Iranian sociologist and philosopher, Ali Shariati. In 1978, he joined leftist forces in the Iranian revolution that eventually transformed Iran in 1979 from a monarchy to an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei.

But Khomenei soon declared a holy war on the Kurds and Jahani. Asl was expelled from university and eventually jailed as a political prisoner, enduring six-and-a-half years of physical and psychological torture before his release in 1989.

Six years later, Jahani Asl and his wife, Jamileh and their three-year-old daughter, Rojeh fled illegally to Turkey where they spent 10 difficult months in dire conditions before immigrating to Canada, arriving in Vancouver in 1996.

Once settled, he immediately began ESL classes, then academic courses at Capilano College, transferring to SFU in 2001 where he received a BA in anthropology and sociology in 2003 and began his MA in education in 2005. He’s now taking a PhD in sociology at UVic and hopes to eventually return to Kurdistan to teach.

The transition has been difficult, especially financially. His family has survived on social assistance, student loans and part-time jobs while living in residence at SFU.

But Jahani Asl remains philosophical. "Life is a struggle," he says, "and it’s up to you to make the most of it." He has even taken up ballroom dancing. "It’s my first hobby," he laughs.

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