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U of O joins first Scholars at Risk program

Hossein Raeesi was forced to leave his law practicie in Iran and come to Canada. Photo: Eric Davidson

Students at the University of Ottawa are hitting the books, catching up with friends, and nursing their hangovers, but for one student, the new semester is a start of a whole new chapter.

Thanks to the U of O, which is working in partnership with Carleton University and a network called Scholars at Risk (SAR), back to school carries a different meaning for Hossein Raeesi. Raeesi is a human rights lawyer who was forced to flee his home country of Iran.

SAR looks to protect threatened scholars around the world.

“Scholars at Risk protects scholars suffering grave threats to their lives, liberty and well-being, primarily by arranging positions of sanctuary at institutions in our network,” according to the organization’s website.

The organization was started in the United States, and has spread across the US as well as Canada, and includes partner organizations throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Raeesi was selected to be hosted by the two universities, which is also the U of O’s first partnership with SAR.

“In this case, which I think is a bit poetic, the first scholar we host is actually a human rights lawyer,” said John Packer, an associate professor of Law and director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the U of O.

Raeesi began his career as a lawyer in Shiraz, Iran in 1991. He  took on a number of human rights cases, often pro bono, including cases where he represented women, children, and minorities. He also worked with local NGOs to promote human rights.

As the head of the Bar Association in Fars province, Raeesi said he encouraged other lawyers to work on human rights cases as well. This provoked a negative response from the government.

“The intelligence service and judiciary were very sensitive after that,” he said. “In 2008, they opened a case against me.”

“I tried to practice more in Iran,” he said, “but after the 2009 presidential election, I had some clients involved in demonstrations against the government.”

Because of this Raeesi fled the country in 2012 and came to Canada.

Raeesi said he chose Canada because of its reputation for supporting human rights, and for welcoming immigrants.

Since arriving in Canada, Raeesi has worked as a teacher, but hasn’t been able to practice law.

One reason for this is that Iran uses a combination of civil law and Shariah (Islamic) law, while Canada, with the exception of Quebec, uses common law.

Although there are many stories of immigrants coming to this country and being unable to practice their previous professions, Raeesi is confident that he will be a lawyer here soon.

At Carleton, he plans to use his experience to teach a class on human rights, Shariah Law, and the Islamic legal system.

At the U of O, he will take law courses to go towards his legal accreditation in Ontario, starting in the winter. “We thought, instead of teaching a course, how about he takes a couple courses that he needs to take in order to get his licence,” said Packer.

Raeesi will also be taking part in a number of seminars and talks at U of O. The first, a panel on the death penalty, will take place on Oct. 21 at 11:30 a.m. in Fauteux 147.

If anything, Raeesi’s story goes to show that no matter what your situation, back to school season signals the beginning of something new and exciting.