The last year has been tough on people across the Tri-Cities, but for the three cities’ Persian community, new year’s celebrations this week offer a time to reflect amid ongoing COVID-19 restrictions and the aftermath of a terrible airline disaster that killed a Port Coquitlam family last year.
Through revolution, war and disaster, the ancient Zoroastrian festival of Nowruz, or “New Day” in Farsi, has been celebrated continuously for over 3,000 years. But with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, the two-week celebration — culminating in a picnic in nature Friday, April 2 — remains muted.
It also comes at a time when a core group of volunteers have united in helping travellers quarantined across Metro Vancouver with grocery shopping, essential goods and even rent.
A year ago this month, a rising tide of travellers returning to B.C. from Iran tested positive for the coronavirus, and as a result, Tri-City Nowruz festivals and public gatherings were among the first public events to be cancelled.
At the time, there weren’t any protocols for holding events, and president of the Tri-Cities Iranian Cultural Society, Behzad Abdi, was left to make some tough decisions.
“I spoke with two or three colleagues at a biomedical university [in Iran],” Abdi told the Tri-City News at the time. “They told me it’s better you cancel it because there’s a lot of cases here.”
A year later, the pandemic has devastated Iran, killing over 61,500 people — the highest death toll in the Middle East.
But here in the Tri-Cities — which claims the second highest population of Iranian-Canadians in Canada after the North Shore — the year-long pandemic has been a story of both isolation and a renewed sense of community.
TRAGEDY, ISOLATION AND HOME
The pandemic wasn’t the only source of hardship for Iranians the world over in 2020.
Less than three weeks before the first case of COVID-19 hit B.C. last year, Ukraine International Flight PS752 was shot down over the skies of Iran, triggering an outpouring of grief. In a massive public celebration of life for a Port Coquitlam family caught in the destruction, throngs of people wrapped around a Coquitlam city block to show their support.
It was the first in a series of events that would bring the community closer than ever before. As Kei Esmaeilpour, mourner and friend of the late Hamidi family, put it at the time: “After 17 years here, I’ve never felt so much support. Nobody over here is alone. We’re all together. This is our home.”
But just as one tragedy pulled people together, another was set to keep them apart.
In 2020, the Festival of Fire was to be held March 17, two weeks before the vernal equinox in a celebration that usually draws 6,000 people to the banks of Lafarge Lake in Coquitlam's Town Centre Park.
In years past, the three-day market brought businesses from across the Tri-Cities together to sell sweets, flowers and a variety of goods in the lead-up to the New Year's celebrations.
But by March 2, everything was put on hold, the first in a cascading pause on public life.
OUTDOOR RITUALS GET MEASURED GREEN LIGHT
A year later, all of the large public events surrounding Persian New Year have been cancelled for a second year running, leaving families to connect through Zoom chats, even as the B.C. government declared March 20 the “Day of Nowruz” over the weekend.
Many families, said Abdi, stayed in their backyards last Tuesday when the community honours nature and celebrates the rejuvenation of spring by jumping over a bonfire.
“They say that if you jump over the fire, all the bad habits, we will burn them,” said Abdi.
On Saturday, Tri-City Persians, along with some 300 million people in Iran and beyond, celebrated the vernal equinox by gathering around tables covered in ancient symbols of renewal, prosperity and luck: green wheat sprouts, apples, gold coins and oranges or goldfish in bowls of water.
Unlike last year, some of the celebration’s most elemental aspects have been given a tentative green light after provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry recently loosened outdoor social gatherings for up to 10 people; on Tuesday, she went even further, allowing outdoor religious services for the first time in months, though Abdi says Nowruz is a strictly cultural gathering and “all people run away from Iran because of religion.”
When the festival’s two weeks come to a close April 2 this year, the new measures will allow families and friends to meet outside for a traditional picnic and take part in rituals such as releasing sprouted greens back into nature.
‘I WANT TO KEEP THIS GROUP FOREVER’
As the pandemic continues, the seven-day moving average of COVID-19 cases is on the rise across B.C. in what Henry described this week as a “slow and steady increase.” But so too have the efforts of Abdi and others in the Tri-Cities’ Persian community.
Within days of cancelling Nowruz celebrations last year, the Tri-Cities cultural group launched what would eventually become to be known as the “Keep Society Safe” group, and has grown into a permanent collection of over 110 volunteers from across Metro Vancouver.
As a first point of contact for newly-arrived Iranians settling in Canada, or families needing support after a trip home, the group helps people in quarantine get access to food, housing and other essential goods.
“Some people are getting their permanent residency, we help them rent a house. They don’t have money,” said Abdi, adding quarantine shopping still makes up a big part of their work.
“Every week, we have four or five requests to buy something.”
It’s all made possible through the Telegram messaging app, where Abdi and his team connect with over 1,000 people. Born out of suffering and need, Abdi said he hopes the group will outlive the shadow of the last year.
“I want to keep this group forever,” he said, “because if something happens, it’ll be there.”
—With files from the Associated Press via the Canadian Press