It’s not every day you meet someone who inspires you.
For Sahar Gholizadah – a 19-year-old visiting Iranian student in Halifax – that day was Saturday when she gave a tearful hug to Iranian journalist, author and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, a leading voice in global protests against the Iranian regime, at the Halifax International Security Forum.
“She’s one of the heroes to me,” says Gholizadah, who works as a server at the Halifax Westin Nova Scotian hotel, which hosted the HISF.
“She is a lady, she is against the regime and she is doing her best to inform other people [and] be the representative of the Iranian people, to share our voice [and] what is going on in my country,” says Gholizadah, who studies microbiology at Dalhousie University.
Their heartfelt embrace followed Alinejad’s fiery denunciation of Tehran’s harsh regime during a panel discussion at HISF. It came as Iran handed out more death sentences to protesters involved in anti-government demonstrations last week.
Gholizadah, a banquet server, was preparing a tray when she looked up to see Alinejad on one of the hotel’s many large screens.
“I was like ‘Oh, my God,'” she said. “I should meet her and talk to her and say, ‘I’m so thankful that you’re doing your best for our support and being our voice for foreign people.'”
It was not the only emotional meeting this weekend at the conference, where top diplomats, soldiers, academics and journalists discussed – often in colloquial language – the world’s many geopolitical crises.
The Halifax International Security Forum, which concluded on Sunday, heard, among others, Secretary of Defense Anita Anand, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee Admiral Rob Bauer, and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled Belarusian opposition leader.
The tragedies of both Iran and Ukraine dominated panels and speeches over the weekend. HISF organizers awarded the John McCain Prize – named after the late US Senator and Vietnam War hero – to the women of Ukraine.
At the hotel reception, Olga Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, was shocked when she came face to face with the woman working the reception. She was a refugee from her hometown, the now battered port city of Odessa.
“We cried,” Stefanishyna said. “I know how she felt.”
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More than a dozen Ukrainian refugees work in the hotel. All weekend long, as the fate of their nation was debated and dissected, they toiled in silence pouring drinks, waiting tables, and setting up the rooms for top security, defense, and political figures.
Their presence was greeted with both surprise and joy by many participants.
“I just come to the table to take an order,” says 26-year-old Kateryna Tsurkan, who is also from Odessa. “Of course, not everyone knows I’m from Ukraine. So I started asking questions in Ukrainian, and they said, ‘Oh my God, you’re from Ukraine.'”
At one point, she took on the job of former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, a regular at the annual conference, who was touched when she explained where she came from.
Get on with life
Tsurkan said the questions she heard most often from participants were the most obvious ones. How long has she been in Canada? How long does she plan to stay?
The former English teacher arrived with her fiancé five months ago. The second question is more difficult and painful to answer.
She said she and her fiancé don’t know what the future holds, so they’ve decided to get married in Canada, even if their family and friends stay at home or scattered to the wind.
“I’m a little nervous and I’m excited, but you know, I’m sad at the same time, because I know my family can’t come [to Canada]said Tsurkan, who was virtually shopping clothes with her mother.
“We have to get on with our lives. That’s why my mom said to me, ‘You know what… if you want to get married now, get married now.'”
Tsurkan said that almost everyone she encountered, especially at the conference, was friendly and helpful.
Maksym Dmytrukh, 26, who has a degree in printing, now pours drinks at the same hotel in Halifax. Originally from the Lviv region, he was released from the Ukrainian armed forces earlier this year on medical grounds. He and his wife fled to Canada a few months ago.
He used the conference and his chance meetings with participants to express his gratitude.
“First of all, I want to thank you, because everyone’s help has meant a lot to the Ukrainians. It is very important,” he said.
Every morning, he said, he wakes up and scrolls through his phone for the latest news from home — where Russian missiles have hit, whether his family still has electricity.
To go home?
Both Dmytrukh and Tsurkan said that eventually they would like to go home and resume their lives.
It is a theme that emerged in a number of conversations Stefanishyna had with Ukrainian refugees she met at the security forum.
“I see so much sadness in their eyes, and at the same time I’m happy that – when I look into their eyes – I know they are safe,” she said.
Stefanishyna said she is sure that all the refugees she has met want to return home as soon as the situation allows.
She said she assured them that the forum participants this weekend were doing everything they could to make it happen as soon as possible.