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Iranian Canadians say they are being punished with travel restrictions for being conscripted as young men

With the holiday season just around the corner, many are planning to travel, but Saskatoon resident Amir Abolhassani says he and many other Iranian Canadians will be shoveling snow at home.

Abolhassani sold his house in Saskatoon when his U.S.-based employer asked him to relocate to North Carolina. But at the Calgary airport this January, his family was not allowed to cross the border. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer told Abolhassani, who is a Canadian citizen, that it was because of time he spent as a conscript in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) more than a decade ago.

The Trump administration labelled the IRGC as a terrorist organization in 2019.

Abolhassani said all men in Iran above the age of 18 have to do mandatory service with one of the arms of the military, and one in three are assigned to the IRGC. He said refusing conscription would prevent a man from getting a passport or accessing civic amenities, and can sometimes lead to further punishment.

He said it’s not fair to be punished for having been conscripted.

“We are not Canadian citizens enough. Are we really Canadians at this point?” he said.

“There are people who are not able to say their last goodbye to their parents in the United States. A sick child who needs to be treated there can’t go.”

A man sits in a blue shirt with a wooden cabinet in his background.
Amir Abolhassani was recently asked by his employer about the status of his move to the U.S., but so far is being allowed to work remotely. He says he worries for his future and of his month-old daughter. (Kayla Guerrette/CBC)

CBC spoke with 25 Iranian Canadians who unanimously agreed that they are being treated as second-class citizens. All say their emails to local members of parliament and officials at the federal level have fallen on deaf ears.

Many say they are subjected to a secondary screening involving long, intrusive interviews and an extensive search of their belongings, cellphones and social media, even when entering Canada.

While all welcome Canada’s recent decision to ban senior IRCG officials, they want the government to not put former conscripts in the same basket.

A snapshot of a boarding pass.
Iranian Canadians with past conscription with IRGC often receive a ‘4S’ designation, which stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection, on their boarding passes. Vancouver resident Navid Sadeghiani and his family were given them in July while travelling to Paris. (Submitted by Navid Sadeghiani)

According to the recent census, there are 213,160 people of Iranian descent in Canada. Abolhassani said some 80,000 could be impacted by this issue, including his daughter, who is barely a month old.

“I’m in contact with over 200 families corresponding to some 600 Iranian Canadians in the same boat,” he said.

Global Affairs Canada declined to comment, redirecting the query to the Canada Border Services Agency.

In a written statement identical to one it provided after a previous CBC inquiry on the subject, CBSA said it does not track instances of Iranian Canadians being denied entry to the United States and other countries.

“The CBSA does not possess any power or authority to intervene in the immigration decisions made by other nations,” the statement read.

CBC News reached out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and CBP for a comment, but did not receive a response.

‘Canada is offloading responsibility to the U.S.’: Alberta man

Abolhassani said he was recently asked twice by his employer about his move to the U.S., but so far he is being allowed to work remotely.

Mojtaba Siahpoosh, a resident of Okotoks, Alta., said he got a notice from his employer a week ago saying he would lose his position by the end of the year.

“They’ve been waiting for me, as I was hired to cover both Western Canada and the U.S., but I was given inadmissibility [to the U.S.] last October,” he said.

“I tried again this July. We arrived at the border around 8:30 a.m. and were interrogated for seven hours, including my wife and two very young kids, who were born and raised in Canada.”

A man and a woman sit on a bench with their two young kids in a pumpkin patch.
Mojtaba Siahpoosh says he and other Iranian Canadians are being discriminated against while Canada offloads responsibility to the U.S. (Elena Matkovska Photography)

Before 2019, the 44-year-old had been traveling to the U.S. for years.

Siahpoosh felt he was “being treated like a criminal,” as he was accompanied by the CBP officers even to bring baby formula from their car.

During his conscription period in 2006, Siahpoosh was tasked with archive and journal paperwork.

“I’ve never picked up any arms in my life. That day at the border was the most exhausting day in my life,” he said.

“We are being discriminated against and Canada is offloading responsibility to the U.S. I feel like a third-class citizen.”

‘Crushing a little boy’s dream to raise the Canadian flag’: Vancouver man

Vancouver resident Navid Sadeghiani agrees. His son Arshia Sadeghiani, a Canadian champion in robotics, was not allowed to enter the U.S. with the robotics team from his  West Vancouver school district to attend the world championship in Dallas.

The 13-year-old was denied on May 7 because his father had been conscripted in Iran more than 30 years ago.

The family, including their 10-year-old, often has to arrive four hours early when traveling to any country that is a U.S. ally and face extensive secondary screenings before boarding.

“My kids ask me, ‘Daddy, why do they ask us such questions?’ What should I tell them? When Trudeau says a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, I don’t believe in that,” Navid said.

“Even when returning to Canada, we have to be redirected to immigration when we are Canadians. It feels like we’re being sent to jail.”

A masked boy tilts down his head while holding a trolly bag.
Arshia Sadeghiani, 13, does not want to continue his future in robotics after he was not allowed to enter the U.S. with the robotics team of his West Vancouver school district to attend the world championship in Dallas, his father says. (Submitted by Navid Sadeghiani)

The 50-year-old feels sad for his son, who was depressed after the refusal. 

“He didn’t want to talk and now he doesn’t want to see a future in robotics because he can’t travel or pursue his higher studies there,” Navid said.

“They are crushing a little boy’s dream to raise the Canadian flag in the U.S. His future is being destroyed. Canada needs to act.”

Sara Ebrahimi, another B.C. resident, had to tell her daughter who wanted to pursue her education in New York the same thing, after the family was stopped last month at the border on their way to Seattle. 

“It’s so offensive, after paying all the taxes here, I can’t visit my siblings and family in the U.S. It’s taking an emotional toll on us. I can’t go to most places in Europe and the Caribbean for vacation,” she said.

“We Iranian Canadian women have to pay the price. We thought we had independence here, but no we aren’t free.”

WATCH | Canada bans top Iranian revolutionary guard members in new sanctions:

iranian canadians say they are being punished with travel restrictions for being conscripted as young men 4

Canada bans top Iranian revolutionary guard members in new sanctions

1 month ago

Duration 1:53

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announced a new round of sanctions on Iran, banning the top 50 per cent of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members from entering Canada.

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