What life looks like amid the Iranian diaspora in 'Tehranto'

Jun 11, 2019

I started getting into photography when I was 18 and bought my first camera with money I earned waiting tables in a restaurant in Sari, in northern Iran.

In 2005, I began taking pictures for the Fars News Agency in Iran, after I met its picture editor by chance. I came to realize though that I was born in a country where real democracy does not exist. I never imagined myself as one of the thousands of Iranians that would flee their homeland, but I had to get out of Iran in 2009. The government had issued an arrest warrant for me, after my images of the Iranian uprising that year were published abroad.

In my new life outside of Iran, I have met with many other Iranians, and developed a project to document their lives. They all have different reasons for leaving their mother country. But everyone I have spoken to hopes that one day, they can return to Iran — but to an Iran where they are allowed to vote in truly democratic elections, to speak freely, to dress the way they want and to freely practice their religion and beliefs.

Iran women's rights quiz

Quiz: What do you know about women's rights in Iran?

PRI’s The World has been exploring the US relationship with Iran and the large population of Iranian expats in North America. I traveled to Toronto, one of the biggest concentrations of Iranians living outside of Iran. They have arrived in waves, over several generations, going back well before the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. I met people in Toronto from different generations, but who all share the goal of nurturing a better life and benefiting from the social, political and religious freedoms and multiculturalism found in Canada.

The city of Toronto is home to around 100,000 Iranians, and most of them arrived in Canada after 1979. The town of Richmond Hill, part of the Greater Toronto area, is home to many of these immigrants, and without a doubt you can feel the essence of the Persian community by simply driving or walking around town and noticing all the Farsi signs and businesses, and hearing the language from people on the street. Here are a few of the Iranians I met, and where I met them.

A shopping strip

This is a community that has done well for itself in large part, living and working comfortably for years and, in many ways, preserving Iranian culture and language. Those who might long for their Iranian homeland can easily find everything from Persian restaurants, breads and dried fruits, to books, music, handicrafts and flowers, or they can attend any number of Iranian cultural events, like Nowruz new year celebrations.


A gay Iranian couple at home in Toronto. 32-year-old, Mehyar Ghasemi and 30-year-old, Daniyal Mousavi, came to Toronto four years ago and moved in together two months ago.

The band

Rhythm & Vibes, an alternative rock band, was formed in 2012 in Toronto. Nima Ahmadieh (C) and his sister Sara Ahmadieh (L) started by covering their favorite acoustic arrangements. Later Siavash Sadr joined them as a percussionist.

They began to write their own songs in Farsi, which led to the creation of an innovative acoustic blues style. They believe their music does not fit a specific genre with their Farsi lyrics over western rhythms truly makes them special among Persian bands.

On the street

The word on the teenager's hat means "hello" in Farsi. Canada is second only to the US in the number of Iranian expats living in the country.

At the salon

From left to right, Lida Parandakh, and Sara Masarat. The Iranian women, living in Toronto, were at a beauty salon that caters to the Iranian expat community there.

Parandakh immigrated to Toronto 15 years ago by way of Norway with her husband and their two sons. Masarat, 45, is a computer engineer who moved to Toronto six years ago. She said she loves going to the salon.

Playing soccer

A group of Iranian children playing soccer outside the Iranian grand mosque in Toronto. (Listen to The World’s report about an Iranian imam in Toronto working with a rabbi to help Syrian refugees.)

The bath

Gelareh Esmailie and Mohammad Babazadeh with their kids at home. They immigrated to Canada in 2015, seeking better professional opportunities after living in Norway for five years.(Listen to The World’s report about Canada’s new government moving to restore diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.)

The mosque

A group of Iranian youth, socializing after practicing their religion in the mosque. Many Iranian expats in the Toronto area, however, do not consider themselves to be very religious.

The newspaper

Hassan Zerehi, chairman of Shahrvand Magazine, the largest Persian language newspaper in North America, with his editorial team discussing details of the next issue at their Toronto office. (Listen to The World’s Matthew Bell’s report about meeting "the oldest man in Canada," who’s also an immigrant from Iran.)

Afternoon tea

Gelareh Esmailie and Mohammad Babazadeh along with their daughter and Mohammad's brother, enjoying the afternoon eating watermelon and drinking black tea with traditional Iranian cookies called Noon-e-Berenji.

In the dojo

Nasim Varasteh, Iranian female athlete and karate coach. Varasteh was born in Tehran and immigrated to Canada with her family when she was 5. She’s been living in Toronto since then.

Varasteh has been training in karate for about 29 years. She started when she was just 6. Her father was her first karate teacher.

The plaza

A photo of the Iranian plaza in North York, in the heart of Iranian community. (Listen to The World’s report about a dissident Iranian poet and writer living outside Toronto.)

In the government

Reza Moridi, 70, is a member of Canada’s Liberal Party and a member of the Ontario Parliament.

He, now, serves as Minister of Research and Innovation, as well as Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. In this photo he is taking care of his daily tasks.

Moridi, at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. (Listen to The World’s report about how Iranians in Toronto have different views about politics back in Iran.)

At the cookout

A small group of Iranian refugee families on a Sunday picnic at Toronto Humber Bay Park. They come to the park often, it’s located close to where most of the Iranian expat community are living.

From the left: Sarvenaz Fahimi, Arezoo Victor, Robita Abdolahi, Nosrat Khanjani, Hana Khanjani, Arash Tavakoli and Behzad Abdolahi.

The couple

Niloofar Shirazi and Erfan Ebrahimi, a young Iranian couple at CN Tower, Toronto. The couple has been been together for about two years and they met each other at a concert.

UPDATE: A previous version of this story indicated that Reza Moridi was a former Member of the Ontario Parliament. Moridi is both Member of Parliament of Ontario as well as Minister for two ministries.

From PRI's The World ©2019 PRI