To represent Canada internationally! This was Maryam Salehizadeh’s dream and the seemingly insurmountable challenges she encountered were not enough to stop this offensive player on the Canadian Goalball Women’s Team. In a conversation with this Paralympian, Immigrant Muse uncovers the story of this inspiring immigrant, who has represented Canada internationally.
Maryam landed in Canada in November 2016 on a visitor visa with one dream in mind: “to represent Canada internationally” and she never looked back. “My dream was to join the Canadian team and compete in Tokyo Olympics, Paralympics and world competitions,” says Maryam, who was 29 when she arrived in Canada.
“When I arrived in Vancouver and explored, I realized everything was here. Compared to my home country, Iran, things were more accessible here for someone with visual impairment. So, I decided to stay back and fulfil my dream”, Maryam expresses.
Prior to coming to Canada, Maryam was a physical education teacher, a goalball coach, and a member of the Iranian National Goalball team for ten years. Despite being accoladed twice as the best offensive player in Asian Competitions, Maryam “couldn’t participate in world competitions as Iran didn’t allow us to participate in competitions hosted by a few specific countries, thus we were missing on all big competitions”, she says.
Achieving her Canadian dreams did not come without its challenges.
“I came all alone to Canada. My family and the society back in my country were against my decision. They were concerned about my safety in a new country. I heard all sorts of things, ‘you’re a refugee, you’ll have to live in a shelter, people will take advantage of you, you are visually impaired, which will make things even worse and that I should move back to Iran.
“I was married at the time, but I separated from my husband after almost ten years because he was against my decision to move to Canada. I had to try to explain my needs and dreams to people.
“Having less than 5 per cent vision, there were a lot of other challenges that I dealt with, including financial, housing, and language barriers. I couldn’t freely walk around to find organizations or local services. And I was lonely because I was away from my friends and family.”
It took almost two years and four months for Maryam to get her permanent residency, without which she couldn’t represent Canada in an international competition. However, she says, “I utilized this time for training, although my financial crisis didn’t allow me to hire a personal trainer. I missed a lot of training camps due to financial crunch, and my lack of fluent English language skills made it hard to communicate with new friends and teammates.”
Maryam enrolled in English classes at Vancouver Community College to improve her language skills and tried to find a job. Sadly, Maryam couldn’t find a job due to her “limited English language skills. Also, at that time, there were hardly any jobs for the visually impaired. I had to spend all my savings, and eventually applied for welfare and disability benefits.” Despite these challenges, the athlete in Maryam refused to give up on her dreams.
Finally in 2019, things began to fall in the right places for Maryam. “I received my permanent residency in March and made it to the (Canadian Goalball Women) team of six athletes for the Parapan American Games in August. Our team won the bronze medal.”
Since her selection into the Canadian team in 2019, Maryam has represented Canada internationally in the Paralympics, the American Championship and the Parapan American Games. In 2021, she joined the Canadian team to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics. “Although we didn’t make it to the podium in the Tokyo Paralympics, it was a huge achievement for me,” she adds.
Maryam feels “proud to be part of the team representing Canada and especially an Iranian representing Canada. The fact that I was the first Iranian lady who competed in the Paralympics in goalball made it all the more sweeter”, she says with pride.
Maryam has achieved her dream of representing Canada internationally. Her next goal is to “compete at the World Competition at the end of this year. My goal is to compete and be on the podium there. And for the next Paralympics in 2024 in Paris, my goal is to take my team to the podium.”
Currently, Maryam is taking computer classes to enable her secure a job in the future, and she also trains six days every week in preparation for her next competitions. “When at home, it is generally a 12-hour training that includes mobility stretches and physio and meetings related to the National team”, she states.
The determined athlete proclaims, “Canada is the place to grow. We can dream and achieve whatever we want here, so dream big! Because people and government here respect you. It is easy to grow here if you are determined.”
With countless challenges also come sacrifices. “I’ve sacrificed being with my friends and family. I also had to deal with many accusations that I am selfish and don’t care about others.”
Wondering what her friends and family in Iran think about her now? She jokingly says, “I’m not sure if they just gave up on me or are really happy. But since I’ve separated from my husband, everything is way better. My parents also visited me, and they saw me happy here and realized that Canada is a safe country for women.”
Maryam’s brother has moved with her to Kamloops, British Columbia, so she now has immediate family support.
Maryam looks back on her journey and wished that the Canadian government had offered her more support. “As someone representing Canada as a newcomer refugee, they could’ve done more. Speeding up my permanent residency process and now citizenship process would have really helped. It’s been five years, and I am still waiting for a house to be allotted in BC Housing. I am visually impaired, and I can’t walk around in different offices (which limits my work potentials). I was constantly compared with my other teammates. A few people in authority were really harsh towards me.”
The now 35-year-old Maryam says the one thing that kept her going in the face of challenges was her belief. “I believe that there is nothing in this world that a person can’t do. As a person with a disability, my biggest goal has been to prove that a disability is not an inability. These, along with my determination have helped me fulfil my dream and made me an independent person. I didn’t get any kind of support. It was Maryam who supported herself when nobody else did. When I look back on the past, and what I went through, I can’t believe I made it so far all by myself. At times it scares me. Was I mad or something to take this step? But I was so determined to make my dream come true.”