Refugees and a student abroad serve up tears, humanity and grace at Halifax security forum

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Refugees and a student abroad serve up tears, humanity and grace at Halifax security forum

It’s not every day you get to 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 for myself,” said Gholizadah, who works as a server at the Halifax Westin Nova Scotian hotel, which hosted the HISF.

“She’s a lady, she’s against the regime and she’s doing her best to inform other people [and] be Iranian people’s representative, to share our voice [and] what’s going on in my country,” said Gholizadah, who is studying microbiology at Dalhousie University.

Sahar Gholizadah, 19, a visiting Iranian student in Halifax. She delivered a tearful hug to Iranian journalist, author and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, a leading voice in global protests against Iranian regime. (Brian MacKay/CBC News)

Their heartfelt embrace followed Alinejad’s fiery denunciation of the hardline regime in Tehran during a panel discussion at the HISF. It came as Iran handed out more death sentences last week to protesters engaged in anti-government demonstrations.

Gholizadah, a banquet server, was preparing a tray when she looked up and saw Alinejad on one of the many big screens set up throughout the hotel.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my god,'” she said. “I should meet her and talk to her and say, ‘I’m so grateful that you’re doing your best for our support and being our voice for foreign people.'”

Theirs was not the only emotional encounter this weekend at the conference, where top diplomats, soldiers, academics and journalists discussed — often in staid language — the world’s many geopolitical crises.

The Halifax International Security Forum, which concluded Sunday, heard from, among others, Defence Minister Anita Anand, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, chair of NATO’s military committee Admiral Rob Bauer and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled Belarusian opposition leader.

Hometown connection

The tragedies of both Iran and Ukraine dominated the panels and speeches over the weekend. HISF organizers presented the John McCain Prize — named after the now-deceased U.S. senator and Vietnam war hero — to the women of Ukraine.

At the front desk of the hotel, Olga Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, was startled when she came face to face with the woman working reception. She was a refugee from her hometown, the now-battered port city of Odesa.

“We cried,” Stefanishyna said. “I know how she felt.”

WATCH | Hotel staff come face to with dignitaries from their homelands: 

Hotel staff at Halifax security forum share connections with issues at hand

As top soldiers, diplomats and security experts gathered for the Halifax International Security Forum, waiting their tables and serving drinks were recent arrivals from Iran and Ukraine with deeply personal connections to the issues delegates were there to discuss.

More than a dozen Ukrainian refugees work at the hotel. Throughout the weekend, as the fate of their nation was debated and dissected, they toiled silently pouring drinks, waiting tables and making up the rooms for top security, defence and political figures.

Their presence was greeted with both surprise and delight by many participants.

“I just come to the table to take an order,” said Kateryna Tsurkan, 26, who is also from Odesa. “Not everybody knows, of course, that I’m from Ukraine. So I started to ask questions in Ukrainian, and they’re, ‘Oh my God, you’re from Ukraine.'”

Former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, one of the many top officials attending the Halifax International Security Forum. (Brian MacKay/ CBC News)

At one point, she took the order of former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, a regular at the annual conference, who was moved when she said where she came from.

Carrying on with life

Tsurkan said the questions she heard most often from participants were the 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 fiance don’t know what the future will bring, and for that reason they’ve decided to get married in Canada, even though their family and friends remain either at home or scattered to the wind.

“I’m a little bit nervous and I’m excited, but you know, I’m sad at the same time, because I know that my family cannot come [to Canada],” said Tsurkan, who has been dress-shopping with her mother virtually.

“We need to continue our life. That’s why my mom told me, ‘You know what … if you wanted to marry now, you should marry now.'”

Tsurkan said almost everyone she has come across, especially at the conference, has been kind and supportive.

Maksym Dmytrukh, 26, who has a degree in printing, now pours drinks at the same Halifax hotel. Originally from the Lviv area, he was released from the Ukrainian Armed Forces for medical reasons earlier this year. He and his wife fled to Canada several months ago.

Maksym Dmytrukh, 26, who has a degree in printing, now pours drinks at the same Halifax hotel. Released from the Ukrainian Armed Forces for medical reasons, he and his wife fled to Canada several months ago. (Brian MacKay/CBC News)

He used the conference and his chance encounters with participants to express his gratitude.

“Firstly, I say thank you, because everyone’s help has meant a lot for Ukrainians. It’s 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.

Going home?

Both Dmytrukh and Tsurkan said they’d like to go home eventually and resume their lives.

It’s a theme that came up in a number of the conversations Stefanishyna had with Ukrainian refugees she met at the at the security forum.

“I see so much sorrow in their eyes, and at the same time, I’m happy feeling that — looking in their eyes — I know that they are secure,” she said.

Stefanishyna said she’s confident that all the refugees she met want to return home as soon as situation allows.

She said she assured them that the participants at the forum this weekend were doing everything they could to make it happen as soon as possible.