Tale of two women, two closed embassies, two very different stories

OTTAWA — A Syrian woman sits in one of Canada’s capital cities, wondering about her family back home.

An Iranian woman sits in her country’s capital, wondering why her Canadian family abandoned her there.

Both are former employees of Canadian embassies —in Damascus and Tehran — closed in 2012 in the midst of social and political upheaval.

But documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access-to-information legislation show a stark contrast between the way Canada treated its former employees in Syria and those in Iran.

In Syria, a civil war prompted Canada to pull up stakes, while in Iran, a decision by Canada to cut off diplomatic ties with the government was behind the move.

In Syria, layoffs of local staff began in January 2012 and ended with the full closure of the embassy in March of that year.

A week after, then-ambassador Glenn Davidson wrote a memo on how it was handled, offering advice for future such closures.

For locally-engaged staff, workplaces are not just jobs and sources of income, they’re also sources of pride, he wrote.

“Our bottom line was: look after your staff as you would wish to be looked after yourself,” he said.  

Each employee met individually with their manager, got a photo, a certificate of appreciation and even offers of counselling. Severance was paid immediately and arrangements were made for pensions and benefits.

“It broke my heart (that the embassy closed),” said Basila, a former employee,who asked that her real name be withheld to protect her family in Syria.

“But it wasn’t surprising the way they treated us — Canadians know how to treat people.”

The memo may not have reached Tehran.

The documents suggest planning to close the embassy was underway in April 2012. Locals were kept in the dark to protect them and the Canadians working there, lest the Iranian government find out ahead of time, the documents say.

“The closure of the embassy of Canada in Tehran, and the way in which the decision to close the mission was implemented was the result of a truly unique set of circumstances, ” said an e-mail about the Iranians sent to senior Canadian diplomats around the globe.

It took two and a half years for The Canadian Press to obtain some 700 pages of records related to the closure of both embassies and they are heavily redacted.

Iranian locals knew they weren’t fully trusted — that was part of the stress of working for a foreign government, especially one Iran didn’t like, said Afsaneh, a long-time embassy employee who asked that her real name not be used to prevent any repercussions from the government in Tehran.

But there had been a warm relationship with their bosses and it turned cold that spring, she said.

“Something was wrong but we couldn’t figure it out,” she said in an interview.

As part of the plans for closing the embassy, the documents suggest the embassy was developing a strategy for handling the layoffs, including a scheduled set of calls, but the details are censored.

Canada announced on Sept. 7, 2012, it was listing Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and ending diplomatic relations, with Canadians already out of the country. 

Afsaneh found out about it from a friend watching the news on the BBC.

With the embassy doors locked, personal belongings of many local staff — who considered the embassy the safest place to store items like passports, diplomas and cash — remained inside for over two months.

And they waited as long for their severance pay and benefits.

A group of staff wrote an angry letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other senior officials in October that year, the first of several attempts at recouping their money and belongings.

The toxic relationship between Tehran and Ottawa was putting their lives and families at risk, they wrote, saying none would be able to find work.

“None of us expected such an approach from a government espousing and advocating human rights and Canadian values regarding its own employees,” the letter said.

A month later a frustrated former employee wrote to two senior foreign affairs officials, Daniel Makysmiuk and Dennis Horak.

“Mr. Denial,” the letter began, “excuse me, how long should I wait to get my right from the embassy?”

Later in November, through the Italian embassy, paycheques were delivered with a letter of thanks.

“Our gratitude is reinforced by the knowledge that strains in Canada’s relations with Iran made your employment at the Embassy of Canada more challenging than normal, and thus your loyalty is doubly appreciated,” then deputy foreign affairs minister Morris Rosenberg wrote.

The Foreign Affairs department declined a request for an interview and did not directly respond to specific questions about how Iranian staff were treated.

Documents suggest concerns were raised internally, but the elements which remain uncensored are mostly connected to pay and benefits.

It was a chilling contrast to what happened in 1979, Afsaneh said.

During the Iranian revolution, Canadian embassy staff were evacuated en masse and the crew that remained were later made famous for protecting American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis.

Locals were also offered help getting out of the country, Afsaneh said. But this time, nothing.

She and her husband had tried to leave earlier. About seven months before the embassy closed, they were told their application to immigrate to Canada was being returned as part of the Conservative government’s move to erase a backlog of old files that spring.

So they remain in Iran, still hurt about how they were treated.

“We never expected them to tell us about their plan but wished our employer cared about us as they did in 1979,” she said. 

Meanwhile, staff in Damascus were offered positions in other embassies, reference letters and remained in seemingly-close contact with Canadian officials.  

“I follow the news from Syria with great sadness, and worry about all of you, ” former ambassador Davidson wrote in an e-mail reply to one in May 2012. 

“I hope peace will return, but there is not much cause for optimism just now.”

Basila had hoped for peace too, but eventually fled the country. She and her family travelled to Jordan, living in a refugee camp until they received word a church in Toronto was willing to sponsor them as refugees.

She is insistent her former work for Canada had nothing to do with her selection and is aware the Canadian government is under fire for its seemingly-slow response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

She has a different perspective.

“I’ve seen both sides of the file now,” she said, comparing her time in the Canadian embassy and her time in the refugee camps.

“The government is doing the very best it can in very bad circumstances.”

 

 

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press