Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

Ex-refugee uses own experiences to help others

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

As a former refugee who was forced to leave his own country during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, Iranian-born Sena Vafa hopes to raise awareness about the plight of refugees here in Japan.

Now a Canadian citizen who first came to Japan in the late 1990s and who has lived here since 2006, Vafa has been sharing his experiences through lectures at various venues across the country while at the same time working for charities and humanitarian causes.

“In my life I’ve seen poverty, wealth and I’ve seen people die,” said Vafa, who established the nonprofit organization Runway for Hope in Tokyo in late 2010 to raise awareness about the plight of refugees.

His organization, which holds charity fashion shows and seminars to raise funds for helping refugees both inside and outside of Japan, has also helped people in Tohoku who were affected by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“We established the organization a few months before the massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, which left many children orphaned” and whole families uprooted, he said.

“Many people have since become internally displaced,” he said. “We had to shift our attention to the (victims of the Tohoku region).”

With Japan witnessing its own citizens displaced by a disaster, Vafa believes people here can now better connect to the issue of refugees and internally displaced people elsewhere in the world.

“Some 25 million people of the world population are displaced and those numbers are not decreasing,” he said, stressing that the refugee problem and the situation of people who are internally displaced is one of the most complex issues facing us today.

Along with his project, Vafa, who has worked for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, renamed the Human Rights Council in 2006, as an adviser, stresses the importance of carrying dreams and hopes that refugees and other people facing difficulties cling to.

Vafa was born in 1970, the son of a diplomat serving during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran’s last ruler ,who was overthrown by an Islamic revolution in 1979.

Due to the revolution, which broke out just before his father’s posting to Afghanistan ended, Vafa’s family was ordered to return home to Iran.

However, as a Baha’i — Iran’s largest non-Muslim minority — Vafa and his family suffered the government’s oppression.

“As the revolution took place, my father was removed from his post, the life was very tough,” he recalled. “They took all from us, including pictures (of our family), wedding rings, everything.”

Since the overthrow of the regime, Baha’is have been systematically persecuted by the government, something that is continuing today.

In 1980, less than a year after the start of the revolution, forces loyal to then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, beginning a war that was to last until 1988.

During the course of the conflict, the Baha’i in Iran were barred from working for governmental institutions and restricted from forming religious institutions, entering university or even continuing education.

“As Baha’i, we had to leave, escape Iran,” Vafa said, adding that “if you stayed, you would have been forced to fight.”

It was in 1985 — when Vafa was 15 and in his last year of high school — that he was forced to flee Iran, alone.

“My parents didn’t want me to be the victim of the war, without having a proper education and a proper life,” he said.

He went to a refugee camp near Lahore, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, where he spent 23 months living with about 2,000 other Baha’is and refugees.

He recalled that the refugees often suffered from food shortages and had to walk for hours to a water source.

“We needed to heat it up,” he said, adding that winters in mountainous Pakistan were harsh to survive in and conditions in the camp “were horrific.”

“But we tried to move on, to see hope for the future. Refugees cling to it, believing there will always be tomorrow, the rain will stop and the sun will rise, and all troubles in life will be ended soon,” he said.

At the age of 17, his life took a turn for the better when his application for refugee status in Canada was accepted.

The Canadian government allowed him to resettle in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as an immigrant and a Canadian citizen. But the ticket to a new life in a new land was given to Vafa alone, and he initially struggled to settle into his new environment without any family members close by.

“It was February 1987 and I was 17, without any command of the language, without parents and friends,” he recalled.

With tears in his eyes, Vafa said he had lost hope he would ever see his parents again, adding he had to wait 13 years to make his dream a reality.

“My life would have probably been different if they were beside me, but I did my best to bring them joy as I believe all parents want their children to be happy and succeed,” he said.

With dreams of working for NASA, Vafa began studying astrophysics at a Canadian university. He decided, however, to focus on international relations and political science in relation to his own experiences, he said.

Vafa has lived in about 15 countries and has continued his education at U.S. and British universities. After 10 years of living in Canada, he came to Japan and studied political science at Kyoto University between 1999 and 2001.

Along with his charity work at Runway for Hope, he runs various businesses, one of them being a national director in Japan of Bride of the World — an international beauty pageant and bridal fashion event organization that fosters a universal concept of beauty and love.

These activities, he said, are connected in terms of promoting family values, happiness and hope.

“Through organization of this event we can help people, make them happy,” he said.

He said he had already witnessed a lot by the time he was 10, “but I survived the war and it would be a waste if I didn’t share (my experiences) and try to make other people’s lives colorful.”

“I’m fortunate, having been given a chance to be where I am right now,” he said. “What gave me hope and strength to struggle for a better life were good parents, good teachers and good friends. I want to give people hope.”

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