By Anima CEO, Annahid Dashtgard. An excerpt from her new book Bones of Belonging: Finding Wholeness in a White World.
I’ve known you now for close to four decades. You and I first met when I was a scrappy nine-year- old Brown kid who arrived on your soil from England by way of Iran. Your grand open spaces shocked me after the boisterous, crowded streets of Tehran, and the more placid yet still crowded townships of England. You took my breath away with the way your prairie sky could change shades from cobalt to cerulean to midnight blue and the fact we could drive for miles sometimes without seeing anyone on the road.
Your endless, unblemished open spaces, and younger culture held so much possibility. Anything could happen. I could be anyone here, someone.
That dream quickly died when I was made fun of, spat on at school, failed for no reason when trying for another Girl Guides badge. I stood out for reasons of both skin colour and ethnicity, and it made me very afraid to stay with you. The never-ending whiteness of your winter landscape, and of the people surrounding us, seemed like impenetrable barriers. Where was your heart, I wondered, as I closed mine off to you?
I stood out for reasons of both skin colour and ethnicity, and it made me very afraid to stay with you.
Ours being an arranged relationship, leaving was not an option. I was forced to spend more time getting to know you. Diving into shockingly cold yet serene lakes of turquoise nestled into your Rocky Mountains became second nature. I found my imagination sparked in the light-filled public library, a twenty-minute walk from my childhood home (as was anywhere else I travelled). I was cared for through multiple hospital visits where as a new immigrant family we never had to worry about costs. And then there were always people who appeared like magic at times when most needed … a superintendent who agreed to send me to a different school district, a neighbour who gifted a crocheted square, which I slept with throughout my entire childhood, a teacher who helped me create a high school chapter of Amnesty International that got me started on the path to activism. Through the thorny brambles of suspicion surrounding us, the goodness of your people found a way to seep past the protected facade I learned to put up.
As a young adult I began to travel across your vast landscape, gradually delighting in the diversity that I learned is such an essential part of who you are. I carefully picked sea-tossed pebbles off the wild ruggedness of your eastern shores while being welcomed into the homes of the most bighearted people. I took the ferry to various Gulf Islands off the coast of Vancouver and traversed the landscape that brought the Group of Seven to fame.
The defining moments of growth for you over this last quarter century are also mine. I wept on first learning the plight of Indigenous people across this country through the Oka standoff in 1990. I panicked at the 1995 Quebec referendum and the potential loss of one of our largest provinces. I marched in Quebec city against the Free Trade Area of the Americas Agreement in 2001 with a hundred thousand others, and then again to protest Bush’s invasion of Iraq two years later. I have voted in every election since reaching legal age and have organized national political campaigns sweeping shore to shore. I have talked to your media and politicians and jostled for a better, more just Canada. Over the years, you and I, we have learned to co-habitate.
The defining moments of growth for you over this last quarter century are also mine.
I am now an adult in middle age who has found her sea legs in Toronto, marrying another of your adopted brood, a Brown boy from Pakistan who moved here, too, when he was young. Together we started a business teaching others what it means to belong. Our children attend the elementary school across from our house, and twice a year we participate in a street barbecue my husband started that has been going on for more than fifteen years. Although I still live with the fear of being targeted for the ways my race, culture, and personality stand out from the norm, I have learned over time that your people’s generosity outweighs their fear of difference.
I think sometimes of my ex-homeland with fondness, and other times with longing, but most of me is now rooted here. I don’t know if I can say thank you for taking me in. I have also given everything I have to you. You continue to take so much, and much more from people who have inhabited this land the longest. What I can say is that I am glad to be here, waking up to you each morning, working alongside so many others to make this country a refuge for all.
Ask me which place is home, and my only answer now is you.
Sharp, funny, and poignant stories of what it’s like to be a Brown woman working for change in a white world.
I take a deep breath, check my lipstick one last time on my phone camera, and turn on my mic. It’s about ten steps, two metres, and one lifetime to the front of the room. “Hello,” I repeat. “My name is Annahid — pronounced Ah-nah-heed — and shit’s about to get real!”
Anima Leadership believes in a compassionate approach to racial justice where everyone can feel like they matter and belong.
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