Censored in Iran, at-risk researcher Negar Banisafar eager to create a new future at the University of Toronto

Negar Banisafar found it frustrating to be a humanities student in Iran – she could not express her opinions freely and witnessed government brutality during political protests.

Now a graduate student at the University of Toronto, Banisafar began studying English Literature at Allameh Tabataba’i University in Tehran in 2008, then continued her master’s degree at Soore University, considered the one of the best artistic institutions in Tehran.

She hoped the opportunity would open doors for her. Instead, while working on her dissertation, Banisafar received a crash course in brutal school manners.

“They told me that I can’t use the word ‘desire’ because it has sexual connotations. I had to go through a lot of arguments and debates, ”she said.

“I had to replace the word ‘desire’ with ‘ask’. “

She adds that studying English literature is generally frowned upon in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a theocracy with a reputation for not allowing its citizens free speech. “They had come up with the idea of ​​eliminating this major in Iran because they thought it advertised Western ideas and opinions.”

At Allameh Tabataba’I University, Banisafar recalls looking for groups of students on campus. When she couldn’t find one, Banisafar joined the women’s basketball team in hopes of finding a community.

“It was there that I met other students and traveled to different cities in Iran,” she says. “It helped me learn more about the humanities, philosophy, economics and sociology. Later, I understood through these experiences that I was learning from a certain approach called the interdisciplinary approach to research.

It was ultimately this love of culture and critical thinking that drew her to the University of Toronto, where she studied Near and Middle Eastern civilizations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Banisafar is one of four scholarship recipients supported this year by the Scholars-at-Risk scholarship. Awarded by the School of Graduate Studies in partnership with Massey College, the scholarships provide $ 10,000 to outstanding graduate students seeking asylum or refugee status in Canada, or whose studies have been affected by political upheaval in their country of study. It also grants the recipients at-risk scholar status at Massey College.

She says receiving the scholarship struck her as a “miracle” that motivated her studies and future goals.

“I want to be a useful member of society, as a researcher, teacher or writer,” she says.

Although enrolled at U of T, Banisafar currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey. She received visa approval last month and hopes to travel to Toronto in late December.

Getting to North America was a difficult process. Banisafar initially attempted to study in Chicago, but was thwarted by Donald Trump’s presidency, making it virtually impossible for him to obtain a travel visa to the United States due to the order of the administration banning travel from certain Muslim-majority countries.

Her first application for a Canadian visa, along with her husband, was also rejected. Thus, her second request did not include her husband.

“It is extremely difficult for Iranian students to obtain visas due to the bad reputation of the Iranian government,” she said. “I can say that we are victims of our government without having committed a crime. “

Growing up in Iran, she was keenly aware of the limitations of living in a theocracy.

“The first thing you see is that women cannot choose what to wear in Iran. It is a fundamental right that is being taken away from us, ”she said. “And, academically, I understood that I couldn’t break any regulations the government made for us – wrongly, in my opinion.”

The anti-government protests of 2009 had a profound effect on Banisafar’s studies. She joined the thousands of people in the streets who protested against the results of the presidential election. She didn’t take her exams this semester because she felt something more important was happening in her country.

“It was a wave of mixed emotions,” she describes. “I had read history books about the cruelty of the Islamic regime, but I had not experienced it with my own eyes until the day of the protests. I saw how ruthless and inhumane they are and how relentlessly they kill people on the streets.

It was then that she realized that she would never be protected by the government.

“She’s only there to harm us,” she said.

It soon occurred to her that if she continued to live in Iran, she would have to suppress her beliefs and passions. So she left in 2017 and moved to Istanbul. Along with her studies, she also teaches English to Turkish and international students at Istanbul Okan University.

She is currently taking her online classes at the University of Toronto – and says the experience is a turnaround from her previous studies.

“I really enjoy my classes,” says Banisafar. “My teachers are very patient and respect a wide range of opinions. Students are free to express what they feel, even if the opinion is not fully formed in their mind. I know that students at the University of Toronto are free to protest and are always protected. In Iran, it’s all about repression and silence.

“I look forward to being an active member of the university community where moral courage, lifelong learning and collaboration are welcome. “

As for the future, Banisafar hopes to give back to the Iranian and Turkish communities.

“My greatest wish is that one day academics and academics do not run away from these lands,” she said.

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