North Grenville’s new refugee sponsorship group, Open Arms, welcomed their first arrival to the Municipality at the beginning of November. Originally from Iran, Massih was forced to flee the country because of a very popular political website that he ran in his spare time. He was critical of the government and of Iran’s national religion, Shi’a Islam. He also had a Facebook page with 400,000 followers, which was illegal. “If you express yourself in Iran, you are in trouble,” he says.
Because the Iranian passport is very weak, the only two countries he could go to were Turkey and Thailand. Because of the unrest in Turkey (and its proximity to Iran), he chose to go to Thailand, where he was able to continue his on-line work remotely for a while. Unfortunately, with the transition to a new government in Thailand in 2015, Massih was arrested along with thousands of other refugees from all over the world.
Massih was thrown into immigration jail in Bangkok, where he describes the living conditions as hellish. He lived in a room with 80-200 people, where there was just enough room to lie down. There was no fresh air, because the windows were too small, and the temperature often rose to over 40 degrees Celsius. The food was horrible, “waste from a pig farm.” People died on a regular basis.
He was in the Thai jail for just over 26 months. During that time, his only priority was survival. At one point he slipped, broke his hip and had to bribe the guards for medical care. Luckily, he had enough money to pay for surgery, but it still took him seven months to walk again. Even with his injury, and the horrible conditions he was subjected to every day, he never gave up hope. “Some people gave up and they died,” he says. “It’s up to you.”
The only way out of the jail was a plane ticket to another country that was willing to take him in. In November, 2018, Massih was told he had been accepted by the Government of Canada to become a resident. However, he still needed a group to sponsor him and help him integrate into society. With the help of the Mennonite Central Committee Canada (MCCC), Open Arms found Massih in late October and offered him a new home in North Grenville. “It was the ticket to escape from hell,” he says.
He says the welcome he received when he stepped off the plane in Ottawa on November 8 is something he will always remember. “After a long journey, to see that some people care,” he says. “It will be a very nice memory for the rest of my life.”
After just over a month in Canada, Massih is still settling into his new home. He is living with one of the volunteers of Open Arms until he can find a job and a suitable place to live. He is hoping that he can eventually find a job working with computers, but he will be happy with any job that helps him support himself. “Because I am coming from somewhere really horrible, a simple life is enough for me,” he says.
Massih would like to thank Open Arms, the Government of Canada, and the United Nations for giving him the opportunity to build a new life in Canada. He also wants to remind other groups like Open Arms how important it is to support refugees in integrating into society once they have escaped from the nightmare of their former life. “Mentally, the jail will change you forever,” he says about his own experience. “Every minute for them is pain.”
He is already feeling very welcome in Kemptville and is loving Canada, despite the cold weather. “In the cold weather, people are warm,” he says, smiling. “This is the beauty of Kemptville.”
Open Arms is holding a Kitchen Party fundraiser to help support Massih on Friday, December 13, at the Kemptville Legion, from 7-10pm. Join them for an evening of music, food and fun and help welcome Massih to the community. Admission is by donation.