From the Trans-Canada west of Calgary, a thin red line is barely visible on the eastern horizon. Gear is pulled out of the cars parked along the side of the highway for one final inspection on this summer morning. Nothing’s missing. The checklist is stashed in its place. All the gear is packed carefully into the waiting van, which is festooned with banners. The crew finish their coffee and oranges and say their goodbyes to those who will be staying behind. Mahmood Jafari has settled himself onto his bike, radio in place, water in place. He slowly pulls on his gloves as he waits for the sun to rise, pleased it will be at his back.
This will be the scenario in August 2006 when Jafari leaves Calgary on a 1,003-kilometre bicycle trip to Vancouver with his three-person team following in a well-packed van. This would be a formidable journey for anyone. But Jafari is paralyzed from the chest down. He will propel himself on a specially designed bicycle, using his hands. Several craftsmen have worked on the bike for months, refining and reshaping it, making it strong enough to withstand the long and arduous journey through the mountains.
Since late 2005, Jafari has trained at the YMCA, pumping, lifting, twisting and pushing himself to the limit, training his mind and muscles for this phenomenal challenge. He has also cranked up hills on his modified bike. These gruelling sessions have absorbed most of his time and energy. The 23 days on the road in August loom large in his mind, goading him on.
Jafari plans to make 14 stops along the way, where he will share his vision with as many people as possible. His purpose is to draw attention to the need for peace. “What the world needs most is an end to violence,” he says. “It is only when we have peace that we can truly begin to develop communities.”
In 1967, Jafari was born into a very close family in Gonbad, northeastern Iran. The youngest of five, he has three brothers and one sister. Neighbourhood kids gravitated to his house because his mother—a kind, deeply religious woman— was very popular.
Jafari’s early years were secure and carefree. Happy at school, he dreamed of becoming a pilot or teacher. In Iran at that time, he says, children did not choose their friends according to gender, but played with boys and girls alike—“just like here.” In 1979, as Jafari and his friends were moving into their teens, their idyllic way of life came to a sudden and dramatic end.
Under the rule of the Shah of Iran (Reza Shah Pahlavi), Iran had been edging toward Western values. But a struggle had been smouldering between two political factions for many years, and the Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamic Revolutionary Guards were able to take control from the Shah. In an effort to enforce religious conformity, the Ayatollah turned Iran toward the past. No corner of society was left untouched by religious fundamentalism.
New laws were quickly passed, including rules forcing young people to change their behaviour and conform to the traditional laws of Islam as interpreted by the new regime. Boys could no longer openly associate with girls. Holding hands in public became a crime. Young Iranian girls were mercilessly restricted, most visibly by laws forbidding the relaxed and alluring western styles they were used to wearing. Now the chador, a traditional gown, was the rule.
In 1980, while Jafari was still in high school, Iraq launched attacks on Iran. After graduating, Jafari decided in 1982 to join the army, as his older brother and many of their friends had done. He was 18 years old, idealistic and patriotic. He wanted to help defend his country.
At the front line, Jafari’s infantry unit was under constant attack. He suffered tremendous sorrow, especially when caring for friends and other soldiers who had been shot. Many died beside him in the trenches, but Jafari was confident that he was doing the right thing. He didn’t question his patriotic duty.
For eight long years the war continued. Life became an endless nightmare for most Iranians. Anarchy and fear were inescapable. Medical services dwindled as the hospitals filled. It has been estimated that over one million people were killed in both Iraq and Iran. Many more were wounded and not counted.
Walking down the street one day, Jafari was shot in the back. Doctors told his family he would not live. But he did.
Miraculously, some Iranian families were able to preserve a semblance of normal life. Children were fed, clothed and sent off to school—if their school was intact and their teachers still alive.
In 1989, several years after serving his tour of duty, Jafari was glad to be back home with his family. He was thinking about making a career change and looking forward to developing a future for himself. Even though the war with Iraq had officially ended, political unrest still plagued Iran. Walking down the street one day, Jafari was shot in the back. Doctors told his family he would not live.
But he did. He had to be hospitalized for two painful years. The bullet had landed in his spine, inflicting widespread dam- age and leaving him paralyzed. He credits his family with helping him through this frightening ordeal and giving him the strength to live. Every day they were there with him, encouraging life back into him. Slowly, with the aid of many operations, he recuperated.
Jafari soon made up his mind that he would not give in and resign himself to the life of an invalid, dependent on others. Being a very determined young man with tremendous faith, he was grateful to be alive. More than anything, he wanted to find a way to help others. But first he had to adjust to life in a wheelchair. This took several years.
Jafari had endured great loss in his young life—to himself, his family, friends, neighbours and country. Despite being in a wheelchair, he was driven to help rebuild Iran and assist others who, like his own family, had lost so much and were forced to start over. He believed he had the strength to begin building a new life—and hopefully a new Iran.
But, in the late 1990s, Jafari watched as many of his friends and neighbours left their devastated country, despite his pleas that they stay and help rebuild Iran. Finally, in 1997, he reluctantly decided to leave too.
At the age of 30, Jafari arrived in Canada alone and wheelchair-bound. Like many immigrants, he knew barely any English, had little money, and had no friends or family nearby. His mobility was very restricted. Yet, with the help of a few kind strangers, he was able to build a life for himself and fulfill his dream of helping others, guided by little more than his determination and faith.
He volunteered at the Canadian Red Cross in Calgary, which he saw as a chance to meet Canadians and perhaps be of help. Before long, he was offered a paid job repairing a pile of discarded braces and crutches that had spent several years gathering dust in a closet at the Red Cross office. He was glad to be giving some mobility to others. After starting this job, Jafari launched into English studies. He had soon created a busy schedule for himself, volunteering at several places, including the YMCA.
Before his injury, Jafari had always been an avid swimmer, but now he did not think he would ever be able to swim again. one day some of the lifeguards at the Y offered to help him learn. They strapped flotation devices onto every part of his body and carefully lowered him into the pool. Every day for two months, Jafari trundled to the pool in his wheelchair. To his amazement, he learned to swim without the flotation devices.
Late one night in November 2000, Jafari woke up with an idea. He could ride his wheelchair to raise funds for the Red Cross. That’s how it started, with nothing more than an idea and a wheelchair. He quickly got to work figuring out how he was going to accomplish his plan.
Jafari decided he had to start by getting into better shape. Having fun at the Y was not enough: his new goal required much greater strength. He found an expert trainer willing to donate his time and services. He trained six to eight hours a day.
His enthusiasm spilled over everywhere he went. Soon he had his co-workers excited and offering to help. They pitched in to establish a plan with all the necessary details worked out. It was decided he would ride from Banff to Calgary on June 24, 2001. Skeptics did not believe Jafari could complete the 130- kilometre ride. But he did, raising $4,800 for the Red Cross.
In 2002, he completed a second ride, this time to raise funds for the Ability Society, a Calgary non-profit organization that assists people with special needs. He rode 297 kilometres from Calgary to Edmonton—more than twice the distance of his first trip.
By 2005, he had a new plan. It grew from his belief that “if we can learn to accept each other’s religious beliefs we will have a better chance of achieving peace. No one religion is better than another. God has sent us religion as a form of education, for everyone. All religions teach us to love one another.”
So, armed with his unshakeable conviction, he set out in his wheelchair to bring together as many religious groups as he could with the purpose of engaging them in a dialogue on how to achieve world peace. So far, he has assembled a committee of 14 representatives from diverse religious groups and other organizations in Calgary. Christian, Islamic and Buddhist organizations are represented.
“At first, we will take small steps,” says Jafari. “We have started by talking with local people. We believe that ultimately we will reach many more religious groups who will be happy to get together with us and talk… many of the people we talk to share our views and want to support us and carry our message to their congregations. They are open to other religious groups and need only to be given the opportunity to join together. We are seeing this now, in Calgary.”
Jafari believes that people still have the power to change the course of history, as they always have. “While the major forces at work in the world today seem to have all the power, people unified in one goal can still have an impact. We are not completely powerless; we can work toward our goal. We believe there is a chance for change. But we must find ways to work together…. We can take back some of our power. This has happened before in history.”
Jafari points out that in many parts of the world today, religion is used to exploit people to fight wars. “Young people of strong faith are vulnerable to brainwashing. In some countries where a power struggle exists between religious laws and political laws, governments exploit recruits by telling them it is their duty to participate in war. This explains how it is possible to build up the religious passion of recruits to such a degree that they are willing to go on suicide missions, such as the pilots of the airplanes that bombed the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001…
“I believe we can be smarter than those who impose this on their young people. By believing in interfaith unity, we could help young people to be stronger and less easily brainwashed. Peace would follow; we cannot have wars if no one will fight. Governments will lose their power when they are unable to manipulate people like that.”
The goal of Jafari’s ride is simply to raise awareness, not money. He believes his timely message will be of immense value to everyone. “People are not animals; we have a brain. We can choose not to fight… We can learn to find other ways to resolve our differences and overcome our misunderstandings. We can learn to respect each other and respect other religions. I believe there is much hope in the world today and that it is possible to achieve world peace. It won’t happen easily or quickly, but I am willing to work toward that, however long it takes, and find whatever is needed.”
Today, Jafari is content with his life. “I am a Canadian citizen now and I love my new country. Canadians are amazingly giving people. I love Calgary, too. It is so easy for me to get around.” he has many friends and lives comfortably on his own in a small, well-kept apartment. He lives in a wheelchair, too, but this is sometimes hard to remember when faced with his energy and animation. He is proud of his self-sufficiency and believes that he needs nothing. “I live a simple life and am comfortable. That makes it possible for me to help other people who are suffering.”
Carol Tierney is an Alberta-based researcher, writer and photographer. Her photos have been exhibited around the world.