I am an Iranian-Canadian tech CEO, a refugee, and a two-time political prisoner. I arrived in Canada in 1992 at age six with my mother. Now, 25 years later, I am grateful to my parents for standing firmly for their vision of the world and taking tremendous risk to find new opportunities. Our family’s story through my early life taught me how to be an entrepreneur.
Born to Political Activists
My parents were political activists fighting against the Islamic Republic shortly after the Iranian Revolution at a time when the country was being torn apart by civil unrest. They planned and participated in demonstrations, staged rallies, and spoke out against the oppressive government. They bravely stood up for civil liberties and were tortured and imprisoned as a result. Openly speaking against the Islamic Republic of Iran was and still is a crime punishable by death.
In 1985, a few months before I was born, my parents were on their way to immigrate to Germany. Just minutes before boarding the plane from Tehran, they were arrested, placed in solitary confinement, tortured for weeks, and eventually confined in the infamous Evin Prison. I was born in Evin and stayed there until I was 2 years old. My mother was released after serving three years. My father was executed in prison.
My parent’s time in prison and my father’s death changed the course of our lives forever. The next three years were spent planning an escape to a country where we could finally feel safe. My mother’s dream was to move to a place where we could have access to education, new opportunities, and the right to freely express ourselves.
The Journey to Canada
My mother spent the next three years adjusting to life as a newly-widowed-former-political-prisoner-single-mother in Iran. She was mamnoo-al-khurooj — barred from leaving Iran except to visit Muslim countries.
She began to save and plan our escape from Iran. With her life savings and help of family members, she paid a transporter $10,000 (equal to $17,500 today) to bring us to Canada— the same legal paths for refugees that exist today simply were not available then. We obtained visas to Malaysia, and for the next six months, we were housed with dozens of other Iranian refugees in Kuala Lumpur. Eventually, we were given forged Italian passports, our hairs were dyed blonde, and we boarded a train to Thailand — hopeful to make it to Canada.
At the Malaysian-Thailand border, we were captured and jailed along with the refugees we were traveling with — let’s just say the transporter did not supply us with the highest quality passports. Fearful of being deported, we would have faced certain death, my mother would not reveal our true nationality to the Thai authorities. She went on a one-week hunger strike and was hospitalized. My uncles in Canada hired a human-rights lawyer, my mother confessed to the border officers, and we were finally released with Italian passports in hand. With great relief, we passed the airport checkpoint in Thailand and boarded the plane to Canada.
My mother still speaks with fondness and great humility of the moment she first met the immigration officer that greeted us when we landed in Vancouver. Arriving in any country as a refugee is unimaginably difficult, we essentially begged to be allowed in. The border officer hugged my mother closely and told her that we were welcomed in Canada. She was right; we had made it to our new home.
An Entrepreneur and a Refugee
Looking back on my early life as a refugee, I draw parallels to life as an entrepreneur. Many of the characteristics that make an entrepreneur are intrinsic to refugees:
- Unimaginably high tolerance for risk: Entrepreneurs and refugees put it all on the line when the probability of success is clearly stacked against them. They uproot their current way of life and follow a new path with the only certainty being uncertainty.
- No other path: Ask a refugee why they left their country and they’ll tell you they could not live any other way. Ask an entrepreneur why they started their own business and they’ll tell you the same.
- Eternally optimistic: They are both optimistic by nature. They simply need to believe— anything less is debilitating.
- Never give up: Entrepreneurs and refugees have the ability to survive the toughest times, no matter what. To borrow from Paul Graham, they are like cockroaches. They do whatever it takes and find a way to survive just long enough.
- The kindness of strangers: Entrepreneurs and refugees need to receive help from people along their journey. Navigating the difficult road is simply not possible without generosity from others. They receive help from unexpected places and people are rooting for them, even though it is not always obvious to them.
- Move on, fast: Experiencing great loss is part of the journey and they are okay with this. Having a short memory and compartmentalizing the losses is necessary.
- Break the rules: Entrepreneurs and refugees break the rules to get to where they are going and they see nothing wrong with this.
Sadly, not all refugees are fortunate enough to arrive to their destination. Similarly, and with a much lesser degree of seriousness, entrepreneurs often fail. I believe that the above are requisites for every refugee and entrepreneur that is successful in their journey.
Keeping our Borders Open
Recently, the global community has been focused on the role countries play in accepting refugees. This has reminded me of how easy it can be to lose the very thing that has made my story possible — inclusivity — and how important of a cause it is to champion. My story is just one of the thousands that exemplify how Canada’s welcoming approach to immigration spurs innovation and prosperity for the nation.
There is immense value in keeping our global borders open. We have a responsibility to hold our government responsible for ensuring our borders remain open to those who need it most and that our citizens remain empathetic to those fleeing persecution to find a safe home here.
An open and inclusive country is something that we all have the responsibility to work towards. I hope we can continue to work together to offer the same empathy, generosity, and openness to the next generation of refugees that my mother and I were so fortunate to receive.
Yashar Nejati is the founder of Uppercase and lives in Toronto, Canada. This is the first time he is sharing this story publicly.
Thanks to Mahbubeh Mojtahed, Carolynn Lacasse, Adrienne Matei, and Jillian Lockwood.