SFU communication PhD student Laya Behbahani was recently named a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar. The scholarship will support her fight for human rights, advocating against human trafficking and slavery.


Memory of migrant abuse fuels SFU Trudeau Scholar’s lifelong fight for human rights

May 07, 2020

By Stacey Makortoff

There are some moments that make such an impression, they stay with you forever. For SFU communication PhD student Laya Behbahani, who is also director of SFU’s Student Experience Initiative in the Vice President, Academic’s office, that pivotal moment occurred during her formative years.

As a migrant growing up in Dubai, she remembers witnessing a migrant worker–a maid–locked outside on a balcony for days by her employer. The impact of that memory, and what she came to learn of the inhumane plight of other migrant workers in the Gulf countries of the Middle East, stayed with Behbahani as her family later immigrated to Canada.

She found it impossible to reconcile how people would travel outside their home countries only to face abuse, exploitation, forced labour or even death – just for the chance to send money home to their families. As a migrant herself, this was particularly difficult to digest.

Now, as a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar, she has the resources she needs to support her fight for human rights. During her three years as a scholar with the foundation, Behbahani will receive leadership training, networking connections, and funding to cover tuition, living and research expenses.  

Throughout her SFU academic journey, from undergraduate honours, to master’s student in criminology to doctoral student, Behbahani has devoted her studies to better understanding the migrant worker’s plight, while also championing human rights and advocating against human trafficking and slavery, particularly in the Gulf region.

In her quest to learn all she can, Behbahani has built an impressive network and gained experience and expertise through working with organisations such as the Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy and the RCMP, among others.

Throughout all of her endeavours, she discovered that the personal life stories of the migrant workers in the Gulf States are largely absent from academic conversations. Now, with the leadership and funding from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholarship program, and the guidance of her supervisor, professor Adel Iskandar, Behbahani’s research intends to fill that gap.

“The support from the Trudeau Foundation gives me the opportunity to work actively with the other Trudeau Scholars and learn and receive guidance, training and advice from Trudeau Fellows and Mentors who have excelled in these vast area of research,” says Behbahani.

She is looking forward to taking part in the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation’s Institutes of Engaged Leadership where she can envision how her research will have a meaningful impact and create a positive change in the world.

Says Behbahani, “The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholarship enables me to commit to the research that I love and believe is essential.”