Kobra Rahimi has come a long way in the past 15 years — in more ways than one.
She arrived in Winnipeg as a teenager on Dec. 13, 2001 with her Kurdish-Iranian family, after spending her life to that point living in a refugee camp. She came with no knowledge of English and very little education. Today, she is in her second year at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Law.
Last week, Rahimi told her inspiring story to more than 1,000 high school students attending the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada’s 15th annual Holocaust symposium at the University of Winnipeg. The symposium traditionally features one Holocaust survivor followed by a younger person who has experienced more recent war and loss in his or her own homeland.
This was the first time Rahimi has formally spoken about her experiences as a refugee.
Rahimi’s parents are from northwestern Iran, a largely Kurdish area bordering Iraq. After Iraq attacked Iran in 1979, the Iranian government advised people in the border community where the elder Rahimis were living to get out because the area was about to be shelled. Many of the Kurds crossed over the border into Iraqi Kurdistan.
After a short time, the Iraqis came and persuaded the Iranian arrivals to relocate to southern Iraq. Houses and jobs were promised, but all they received were tents in the desert.
“My parents lived in that refugee camp for 22 years,” says Rahimi.
During that time, the Rahimis had six children, including Kobra.
In the early ’90s, the family had hopes of being able to go to Norway. An aunt of Kobra’s in Norway tried to sponsor them. After eight years, they were rejected.
“Then we heard that Canada was accepting applications from refugee families,” Kobra says. “My parents were scared. We had no one in Canada and knew nothing about Canada. But our neighbours encouraged us to apply.”
In the refugee camp, Rahimi remembers, she dreamed about being able to go to school and have her own desk and chair, pencil, and pencil sharpener.
“I have been able to realize my dreams of an education in Canada,” she says.
Even though she arrived with only the equivalent of a Grade 2 education, she was placed in a Grade 9 class. After about a year, she was fairly fluent in English and, by Grade 11, had caught up to her age group.
A middle child, she was the first in her family to go to university and became the role model for her younger siblings.
“My first day at university was one of the happiest days of my life,” she recalls. “I think of all of those children living in refugee camps who won’t have this opportunity.?
Her interest in criminal law was sparked by a Kurdish friend in Finland who writes for a Kurdish newspaper in Europe.
“She encouraged me to translate some of the articles into English,” says Rahimi. “I was reading about young Kurdish men in Iran being hanged for minor offences without charge or trial. That triggered my interest in how the Canadian justice system works. It’s awesome that guilt has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
She also became interested in aboriginal issues after working for Jerch Law last summer.
“I was doing research on aboriginal water rights in Manitoba and Canada,” she says.
She concedes that she was scared about applying to law school, but she has always pushed herself to achieve.
“I am also doing it [studying law] for my family, my community, and all those children in our town in the refugee camp who won’t have this opportunity.”
While she is currently considering a career in criminal, aboriginal, or refugee law, she says that she is open to whatever else might come up.
Five years ago, Rahimi went back to Iraqi Kurdistan to visit the people she knew in the refugee camp.
“Almost all of the people that my family knew in the camp are still there — more than 25 years later,” she says.
Having experienced being a refugee in a new land, Rahimi and her family are extending a helping hand to other Kurdish refugee families who are coming to Winnipeg from Jordan and Syria.
“We help new arrivals get to doctors’ offices, register their kids for school, and acquire furniture and appliances,” she says. “A few weeks ago, we were at a party to welcome some new Kurdish refugees. My sisters and I ended up teaching them traditional Kurdish dances.”