Leily Shafaee On The Importance Of Celebrating Nowruz In The Wake Of Tragedy

Persian New Year ushers in hope in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre.
The Shafaee family celebrating Nowruz last year.
The Shafaee family celebrating Nowruz last year.

One of Leily Shafaee's fondest childhood memories is jumping over small bonfires outside of her Ottawa home annually around this time of the year. While that might sound unusual to some, it won't to fellow Persians.

"I remember the fires feeling so big and I felt so special," the Persian-Canadian told HuffPost Canada. "Now I realize they probably weren't that big, but it truly was my favourite part of New Year celebrations."

Shafaee is referring to Chaharshanbe Suri, which is celebrated on the last Wednesday before Nowruz, Persian New Year. Jumping over bonfires is done to purify oneself and burn away all the terrible events of the past year.

The Ottawa-based young mother also fondly recalls performing in Persian school concerts and plays to celebrate Nowruz, when her classmates would dress as one of the elements of the "haft seen."

The "haft seen" table is usually arranged for Nowruz to display the festive spread, which usually includes herbed rice with fish. The table is decorated with seven items beginning with the letter "sin" (S) since seven is considered a lucky number. Each item is a symbol of spring and renewal, like Nowruz itself.

"Growing up in Canada, Nowruz was very important for my family because it was a tie to our heritage," said Shafaee. "My brother and I grew up in a time that was less multicultural. We saw friends celebrating Christmas, and while my parents let us celebrate that as well so we didn't feel left out, it was important to them to put the emphasis on Nowruz so that we could experience our Iranian heritage and feel a tie to our ethnic roots."

Leily Shafaee and her two-year-old son in front of their haft seen table this year.
Leily Shafaee and her two-year-old son in front of their haft seen table this year.

The struggle for cultural balance

Shafaee's parents moved to Canada from Iran in the late 1970s. They had planned to only be here for a few years while her father completed his engineering degree, but plans to return home took a turn after the Iranian revolution, leaving her family to settle in Ottawa, where Shafaee was born.

Growing up in Ottawa in the 1980s, Shafaee said she struggled to feel comfortable at school because she felt like she stood out.

"I would come home from school crying because no one could say my name properly. As a teenager, the struggle became more about family values and my perception that my family was much stricter than those of my friends," she said.

The public relations director said that as she's aged, she's grown proud of her culture and the values her family ingrained in her. However, she said now she struggles to balance raising a family in today's culture while trying to expose her young son to her Persian culture.

"And my secondary struggle is the internal conflict I feel when I see all the racism and prejudice that seems to be increasing daily. I've been to Iran many times, and I know what is shared in the media/the perception of Iranians is not always correct," she said.

Watch "What is the holiday Nowruz?" Story continues below.

Nowruz in the wake of the New Zealand massacre

This Persian New Year comes on the heels of one of the worst terror attacks against Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. The hate-filled shootings killed at least 50 people and injured another 50 in a rampage that targeted two mosques.

"When I first heard about the shooting, it broke my heart because there seems to be so much racial and religious violence over the past few years that it's a struggle to keep it from becoming normalized," said Shafaee.

"We live in a scary time and many people only know what they hear in the media about us. While some of that is true, it is political and not a true reflection of the people or culture."

Shafaee acknowledged that the shooting will impact how some Iranians and Muslims celebrate Nowruz this year, but she said the need to honour and celebrate her culture is more important now more than ever in the wake of these events and a rise of Islamophobia around the world.

"In it's most literal sense, Nowruz means 'new day' and I hope that's what it symbolizes," she said. "I'm so grateful to be born and raised in Canada, but I am also very proud of my Iranian background. Nowruz is a time to celebrate that background, to feel love and hope, and to help educate others about other parts of the country — not just the political side."

From left to right Christopher Millward and Leily Shafaee with their son at Noorwuz celebrations last year.
From left to right Christopher Millward and Leily Shafaee with their son at Noorwuz celebrations last year.

The next generation

This Nowruz is also significant for Shafaee, who is excited to celebrate it with her son who just turned two.

"It will be the first time he will have any grasp about what's happening. He's watched our Sabzeh grow and will come with me to make a wish and throw it in the water. I will tell him about everything on Sizdah Bedar."

She will also teach him about haft seen, how to say "Nowruz Mubarak" and will endeavour to bake Persian treats with him.

"He is still too young to fully grasp everything, but it is important to my husband (who is Canadian) and I that my son learns about Nowruz and the meaning behind it. Hopefully next year he can help decorate eggs for the haft seen and even go and jump over the fire!"

Born And Raised is an ongoing series by HuffPost Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories — join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at bornandraised@huffpost.com.

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